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Georgia: Nuclear Waste Arrives At Scottish Plant

London, 24 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A consignment of weapons-grade nuclear material flown into Britain early today from Georgia has arrived by road at a reprocessing plant in Scotland.

The 5 kilos of enriched uranium and spent nuclear waste was flown from Tbilisi airport overnight aboard a U.S. military plane. It was taken by truck to the Dounreay nuclear complex in northern Scotland under a heavy police escort.

The nuclear waste is from a 40-year-old defunct nuclear reactor outside the Georgian capital. Georgian physicists agreed that the fuel would be more secure if moved from the Caucasus.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to accept the consignment after a request from U.S. President Bill Clinton who feared that it might fall into the wrong hands.

Blair said yesterday that he wanted to avoid any threat that the nuclear material might be acquired by Georgian rebels.

Britain's decision to accept the fuel has prompted protests from environmentalists and Scottish nationalist politicians who said that Scotland was being made into a "nuclear dump for the world."

But the arrival of the consignment today did not prompt the expected anti-nuclear protests. Activists said it was better for the world environment to treat the waste than to leave it in Georgia.

Tam Dalyell, a Labor party legislator who is a vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Central Asia, said treating the waste in Britain "was better for the sake of humanity."

Dalyell said: "As one who has visited Tbilisi. . .I know the parlous state of much technical equipment in the former states of the Soviet Union." He added: "There are dire technical problems."

The government minister responsible for Scotland, Donald Dewar, said the decision to accept the waste gave Scotland "a chance to show it was doing its bit for nuclear non-proliferation."

One kilo of highly radioactive material will be stored for two years until the Dounreay plant is upgraded to enable it to handle the material. The rest will be processed immediately and converted into medical products for the treatment of cancer.

The decision to move the material from Georgia was partly dictated by geo-political reasons. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus has been one of the most volatile regions in the world with ethnic conflict, separatist wars and hostage-taking.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has been the target of two assassination bids, the latest earlier this year. Georgia is close to the Russian breakaway region of Chechnya and not far from Iran.

Four years ago, the U.S. undertook a much larger operation, Project Sapphire, bringing 600 kilos of highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan to a reprocessing facility in Tennessee. This time, though, the U.S. State Department apparently feared any import of nuclear materials would be challenged by environmental groups. Hence, the decision to enlist the cooperation of the British.

The U.S. is reported to have paid the Georgians 125,000 dollars for the nuclear waste and picked up the 2 million dollar bill to transport it by air to Scotland. First word of the secret deal to remove the nuclear material came after officials leaked the story to a U.S. newspaper.