A team of nuclear experts from the U.S., Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency recently organized the shipment of seventeen kilograms of uranium from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, to Dmitrovgrad in Russia. The uranium was highly enriched, meaning that in sufficient quantities it could be used to make a nuclear bomb.
This was the third time that U.S., Russian, and I-A-E-A authorities have teamed up to remove highly-enriched uranium from Soviet-era facilities in an effort to keep it from falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. Funded by the U.S., the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return Initiative repatriates back to Russia highly-enriched uranium. This material had been sent to research reactors in eastern Europe by the former Soviet Union. In Russia, the nuclear material will be converted into a form that cannot be used for weapons.
Several of the Soviet-era nuclear reactors are now closed and in disrepair. In some locations the nuclear fuel is stored under questionable security conditions, raising concerns that it might be stolen. The two-megawatt research reactor in Sofia was built in the late 1950s and closed in 1989. But the fuel assemblies had been kept at the site ever since. Bulgarian officials welcomed the removal of the highly enriched uranium and cooperated fully in planning and executing the shipment.
U.S. officials have stepped up such joint operations with the Russians. In August 2002, a team from the two countries retrieved forty-eight kilograms of weapons-grade uranium from a shut-down reactor in Yugoslavia. Another shipment took place in September 2003, when about thirteen kilograms were removed from a facility in Romania. The U.S. has compiled a list of about twenty other foreign reactors that use highly-enriched nuclear fuel, some in old and poorly guarded facilities. U.S. officials hope to recover all Soviet-originated highly-enriched uranium and return it to Russia by the end of 2005.
“Proliferation of nuclear materials is a worldwide problem and requires a worldwide solution,” says U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. “We must not allow terrorists and others with bad intentions to acquire deadly material.”