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Georgia: Uranium Flies To Britain For Reprocessing Amid Criticism Of Secret Deal

London, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- British environmental groups have strongly criticized a secret deal to allow weapons-grade nuclear fuel stored in the former Soviet republic of Georgia to be flown to Scotland for safe reprocessing.

Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly agreed to accept the highly radioactive uranium after a plea from President Bill Clinton who feared that it might fall into the wrong hands.

Western security agencies have long warned that ex-Soviet nuclear materials might be acquired by terrorists or regimes hostile to the West and Israel, such as Iraq or Libya.

The U.S. State Department confirmed last night that the nuclear fuel -- stored at a research reactor outside the Georgian capital, Tbilisi -- will be flown by the U.S. air force to a nuclear reprocessing facility in Scotland in the next few days.

The Blair government yesterday admitted the operation was under way after western officials reportedly leaked details to the New York Times. A British spokesman said the UK is "doing its bit to prevent dangerous material getting into the wrong hands."

The decision to accept the five kg of highly enriched "fresh" uranium, and including nearly a kilo of spent waste, has caused angry protests from environmentalists and Scottish nationalist politicians. They said the scheme is "ill-conceived and dangerous" and threatens to make Scotland "the world's nuclear dustbin."

Blair apparently agreed to take the materials when he went to Washington in February for a summit with Clinton. Reports say the U.S. has been trying to find a repository for the materials for two years, and that both Russia and France refused to accept them.

The existence of the nuclear cache in Georgia prompted U.S. concern because the Caucasus republic is at the heart of an unstable region, torn by territorial disputes and suffering the legacy of war.

Three regions of Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adzharia, are at loggerheads with Tbilisi. Georgia borders the separatist Russian region of Chechnya and is only a short distance from Iran.

Experts including Georgian physicists agreed that the nuclear materials would be more secure if removed from the Caucasus. Enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons, although U.S. officials have said the amount at Tbilisi is too small for a bomb.

The Soviet-era nuclear material was stored in a defunct 40-year-old research reactor that is part of Georgia's Institute of Physics. After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the reactor was shut down because of safety concerns. But that left Georgia with a problem: What to do with the plant's nuclear material. A small amount was sent to Uzbekistan, which has a similar reactor, but the rest was kept in a cooling pond at the reactor just outside Tbilisi.

The New York Times quoted Georgian officials as saying they have had many sleepless nights over the nuclear material. They said the greatest potential risk occurred during the Georgian civil war of the early 1990s when the reactor was virtually unguarded.

Now the enriched uranium from Georgia will be reprocessed at the Dounreay nuclear complex in northern Scotland, and converted into medical products for the treatment of cancer. Under the deal, the U.S. is reported to be paying Georgia 125,000 dollars for the material. Transport costs for the U.S. are about 2 million dollars.

Four years ago, the U.S. undertook a much larger operation, Project Sapphire, bringing 600 kg of highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan to a nuclear complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This time, though, the U.S. State Department apparently feared any import of nuclear materials would be challenged on environmental grounds.

The joint U.S.-British action follows numerous reports about the theft of radioactive materials from former Soviet republics, and claims that they were being offered for sale.