MOSCOW – In another nuclear repatriation shipment planned for 2010 – and which took place just as the year was expiring – five airplanes carried 50 kilograms of Soviet-made highly enriched uranium (HEU), produced as research reactor fuel for the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, back to Russia. US President Barack Obama congratulated Ukraine for getting rid of its HEU, while environmentalists continue to warn of the high risks of transporting nuclear materials.
Media reports say fifty kilograms of highly enriched uranium are enough to make stuffing for two nuclear bombs. “The operation was clandestine and elaborate,” a report by Fox News said, stressing the secrecy of the delivery. Twenty-one specially designed casks were used for the recent transport of the Ukrainian fuel, which was delivered to a location near Moscow by five planes from research facilities in Kiev, Sevastopol, and Kharkov. The delivery had been delayed by several days owing to severely unfavourable weather conditions, news reports said.
The transfer was the result of an April, 2010, agreement between the Obama administration and the government of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, announced during the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington.
Russia is bound by an obligation to repatriate either fresh or used highly or low-enriched uranium from seventeen countries – former Soviet republics or Communist Bloc states – to which it used to supply research reactor fuel when it was still part of the Soviet Union. It is a commitment it is now making good on with the help of the US as part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a non-proliferation deal inked between Russia, the US, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2004.
A memorandum on physical nuclear security in the Russian Federation, issued on April 13, 2010, which lists expected or completed deliveries of spent or fresh uranium fuel from former customer countries, said the plans for 2010 included repatriation of fresh HEU fuel from Ukraine, Belarus, and the Czech Republic, as well as spent HEU fuel from Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Serbia, and Belarus. (Last December, around 54 kilograms of SNF arrived from the Serbian Institute of Nuclear Sciences Vinca by sea at the Russian port of Murmansk).
“When things move, there is always a risk of loss or people finding out about our movement and deciding they’re going to mount an operation against that,” Thomas d’Agostino, from the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said in remarks to Fox News. “So we take extra precautions.”
The fuel repatriated to Russia was fresh highly enriched uranium – meaning that this was material that had never been inside a reactor and is safe for manual handling. For this same reason, the protective casks were quite compact in size.
Earlier last year, Russia repatriated spent nuclear fuel from shut-down research reactors in Belarus and Serbia – fuel that had been burned in reactors and consequently has radioactivity levels hundreds of times as high as fresh fuel, with corresponding increases in its hazard levels.
Spent nuclear fuel (SNF) contains artificial radionuclides and needs to be isolated in bulky special-purpose containers. Its transportation thus carries increased risks, something that environmentalists point out when such deliveries take place.
Other, considerably more serious risks associated with repatriated spent nuclear fuel, and which pertain specifically to Russia, have to do with the fact that Russia does not have a long-term geological storage facility for SNF, nor, indeed, any other solution for its safe disposal.
Repatriated SNF – and, to an extent, SNF burnt in commercial reactors of certain Soviet models – is reprocessed at the chemical reprocessing facility Mayak, a site in Chelyabinsk Region in the Urals. But rather than solve the problem, SNF reprocessing leads to accumulation of radioactive waste. Mayak has for decades been dumping liquid radioactive waste into nearby water bodies, contaminating the local environment. For that reason as well, imports and repatriation of spent nuclear fuel have been the subject of vigorous protests by environmentalists in Russia.
As for the fresh Ukrainian HEU fuel, this batch will either be reprocessed or used in Russian research reactors. According to a December 31 Associated Press (AP) report, the HEU is expected to be blended down, rendering it useless for bomb making.
Obama welcomes Ukrainian nuclear transport
News reports indicate the US administration considers the removal operation as an important step toward safeguarding the world’s weapons-grade nuclear material, preventing it from falling into the wrong hands.
According to the Associated Press, at the summit last April, Yanukovych promised to get rid of all of his country’s highly enriched uranium within two years, by April 2012, and the United States is “providing replacement low-enriched uranium that can be used for Ukraine’s research reactors” as an incentive.
The agency said a slightly larger amount of spent Ukrainian uranium was already delivered, with US help, to Russia by rail last May. An additional amount of uranium remains in Ukraine, with plans to return the rest to Russia by the April 2012 deadline.
The summit deal also has the United States building a $25 million “neutron source facility” nuclear research project for Ukraine, the report said, citing NNSA. The facility will be able to produce 50 different types of medical isotopes, using only low-enriched uranium, AP said.
The US has earlier used a similar bargaining chip in its negotiations with the government of Belarus, another former Soviet republic that kept a stockpile of nuclear material it inherited after the USSR disintegrated. Unlike Ukraine, however, which did not seek to make sensational headlines out of transferring its dangerous parting gift back to Russia, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko first threatened to keep Belarusian uranium in the country, only agreeing to give up the material when promised a US endorsement of the highly controversial nuclear power plant project Belarus has been pursuing in Ostrovets, near the border with Lithuania. Doubts linger, however, as to how far Washington intends to go toward helping Belarus build the plant.
For the US administration, the successful removal of HEU fuel from Ukraine was likely a very welcome achievement after the scandal with a ***failed repatriation shipment from Germany, whose Environmental Minister Norbert Röttgen said last December he was aborting plans to send by April 2011 a batch of 951 spent fuel rods from a temporary storage facility in Ahaus to Russia’s Mayak citing the Russian facility’s incapability to safely handle the waste.
Congratulating Ukraine on the latest successful return of highly enriched uranium to Russia, President Obama said in a December 31, 2010 statement: “These actions represent continued Ukrainian leadership in making sure that nuclear weapons never fall into the hands of a terrorist, and working toward a world without nuclear weapons.”
The Fox News report said the US has by now safeguarded enough nuclear materials from various countries to build 120 nuclear weapons.
Why Moscow – and why by air?
After the apparently successful removal operation, questions remain regarding some of the details of the secret transfer – such as the chosen means of transportation and the fuel’s further destination.
Reports say the Ukrainian HEU was delivered to an airfield near Moscow – one of three possible locations, of which Chkalovsky is used in the Russian military space programme and Zhukovsky belongs to the jurisdiction of the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations.
Its further itinerary may lie toward Electrostal in Moscow Region, which hosts the Mashinostroitelny Zavod (Machine-Building Plant), a producer of nuclear fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. The uranium could also be used in one of the research reactors in operation in Moscow, such as at research facilities of the Russian Scientific Research Centre “Igor Kurchatov Institute” or National Nuclear Research University “Moscow Institute for Engineering and Physics.”
Bellona’s telephone calls to the communications department of the State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom – the participant of the repatriation programme on the Russian side – to obtain comments on the recent transport went unanswered (at the time the original Russian report appeared on Bellona’s website, Russia’s public and government offices remained closed for the official ten-day New Year holiday period).
As for the transportation mode, the nuclear load could have been sent to Russia by rail, just as the previous SNF delivery cited by the US NNSA. This is also the chosen shipping mode by which fresh and spent nuclear fuel gets transported to and from Ukraine’s four nuclear power plants in Khmelnitsky, Rovno, Konstantinovka, and Zaporozhye.
Shipping by air may have been opted for in order to have the delivery completed on schedule by year’s end – despite increased risks stemming from both security and safety issues, such as additional hazards associated with potential accidents during the flight and on landing.
materials by air is among the most dangerous of operations,” Artur Denisenko, an energy programme coordinator with Ukraine’s National Ecological Centre, told Bellona. “During air transportation, there is an increased risk of external factors impacting the materials’ integrity, such as weather conditions, external physical impact, etc. Even shipping as little as 50 kilograms of Ukrainian highly enriched uranium, by airplanes, no less, was a threat to significantly large territories and an enormous number of people. The adverse weather conditions that delayed the flights were ample confirmation of that.”
Ukraine’s old – and new – research reactors
According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a programme working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, Ukraine has four nuclear research institutes, two of which – the Kiev Institute for Nuclear Research and the Sevastopol Institute of Nuclear Energy and Industry – operate research reactors and/or critical assemblies.
NTI says the Sevastopol site has a VVR-type 200-kilowatt reactor and two subcritical assemblies. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) lists the reactor and a critical assembly (a zero-capacity reactor) launched in 1967 and 1974, respectively.
The Kiev Institute for Nuclear Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine has a 10-megawatt WWR-M reactor built in 1960. Some of the repatriated uranium would have likely been used at these two facilities.
A third institute, the Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology, has no reactor installations, but has been involved in a wide range of research studies, including production of fuel assemblies for nuclear reactors, as well as experiments on accelerators in which highly enriched uranium could theoretically be used. NTI, whose data were compiled before the recent repatriation operation, says the institute in Kharkov was believed to possess some 75 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent uranium-235, and a large proportion of the material that Yanukovych pledged to return to Russia was stored at the site.
The fourth institute, the Chernobyl Centre on Problems of Nuclear Safety, Radioactive Waste, and Radioecology, is dedicated solely to addressing the aftermath of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion, NTI information says.
Recent reports also say Ukraine intends to build a new subcritical reactor in Kharkov – the same $25 million “neutron source facility” mentioned by the US NNSA. The US has promised to provide scientific and technological expertise toward its realisation. The reactor in question is a subcritical facility driven by an impulse electron accelerator with a tungsten or uranium target for convector.
Ukrainian environmentalists are unhappy about the new project and consider it a sizable threat.
“Experimental nuclear research reactors are far more dangerous than those that are used at nuclear power plants or other facilities. It is exactly in scientific institutes that these reactors are operated under conditions that have never been tried anywhere in the world, where their properties are tested to prove theories or hypotheses that may turn out to be wrong,” Sergei Shaparenko from the ecological group Pechenegi told Bellona. “Nobody will give a 100-percent guarantee that this will not lead to irreparable consequences that could result in casualties among the population and radioactive contamination of the city’s territory if the reactor is built in Kharkov.”
Environmentalists insist that building the new reactor in Kharkov, which is home to 1.5 million people, is too precarious a move and that the decision was made without due public participation, nor were any expert opinions made known to the public regarding the project.
Research or experimental reactors are rarely such a hot-button issue for the public as the operation or construction of commercial nuclear power plants. Yet, research reactors do, too, generate nuclear and radioactive waste and are just as liable to potential accidents, including serious ones.
And as repatriation transports of nuclear research fuel become more frequent, and the media pay more attention to the issue, research reactors are being forced into the limelight. Unlike the shut-down Serbian reactor Vinca, which returned its SNF to Russia last December, Ukrainian research reactors are still online. Ukraine does not intend to wrap up its nuclear research – therefore, nuclear deliveries like the New Year’s eve air shipments are unlikely to be the last.