Most estimates put the amount of highly enriched uranium – or U-235 – needed to make a nuclear bomb at about seven kilograms.
The focus of the US-Russian driven initiative is the result of long-unheeded warnings from scientists that supplies of Russian–origin highly enriched uranium at research and university reactors around the world are particularly vulnerable to theft by terrorists. The programme will retrieve highly enriched uranium sent by Moscow to 20 reactors in 17 countries and ship it back to Russia for storage and down-blending.
Nuclear experts believe successful implementation of the US-Russian initiative programme will require a US Congressional infusion of $80m.
The 8.8 kilograms of highly enriched uranium airlifted to Russia under heady guard by IAEA officials last week will eventually go to the Luch facility at Podolsk, which has down-blended some 8 tonnes of fresh Russian origin highly enriched uranium. First it will be stored at the Dmitrovgrad All-Russia Institute for Atomic reactors, known as NIIAR in its Russian acronym, to the east of Moscow.
The joint US- Russian initiative has so far transported some 500 kilograms of fresh highly enriched uranium fuel back to Russia from former Soviet satellite and Bloc states under a tri-lateral deal inked in 2004 between the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Russia’s atomic energy agency Rosatom and the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The other countries covered by the fuel-return programme are Belarus, Bulgaria, China, the Czech Republic, North Korea, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, Kazakhstan Latvia, Libya, Vietnam and Yugoslavia.
Security still not ideal
Yet even officials with Rosatom have said that – despite huge investments from the United States in the Podolsk and Dmitrovgrad facilities – have said security should be improved.
“Our protection system against terrorist attacks must be modernized. We know this. We pay great attention to it," said one official who requested his name not be used.
Edwin Lyman, senior scientist in the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington said at the time the programme was initiated in 2004 that there were “many bombs worth” of highly enriched uranium in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, and raised concerns about security at the research reactors themselves.
“Academic and research reactors at universities are simply not capable of providing a defence against a terrorist assault,” said Lyman in 2004. “The great concern is a paramilitary-type assault on one of these facilities and the material is forcibly removed.”
Lyman was also concerned with security of the repatriated fuel in Russia, and noted Russia’s poor record for storing and safeguarding the atomic material it already has.
"Bringing all this back to Russia, yes, it’s a little paradoxical, given all the warnings about proliferation in Russia," said Lyman at the time.
Russian nonproliferation experts supportive but sceptical
Over the years, the United States and Russia have exported several thousand tons of uranium—to such an extent that Alexei Yablokov, one of Russia’s leading environmentalists and the president of the Moscow-based Centre for Ecological Policy of Russia, believes it can never be entirely accounted for.
"In principle, it is a very good idea to collect all used nuclear fuel which has been spread all over the world, but it is also an impossible task," he in a telephone interview with Bellona Web.
"A huge amount of it will remain in reactors in different parts of the world, nuclear power plants in different countries will continue to be a powerful source of weapons-grade nuclear material."
For this reason, said Yablokov, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative is more a political than a practical step.
The Global Threat Reduction Initiative takes into account those Russian-built research reactors that are considered most vulnerable to theft. In some cases, the fuel was shipped from Russia as early as the 1950s – making the material indeed hard to track down in all cases.
Programme behind schedule
The repatriation of the Polish fuel to Russia from the Maria Research Reactor in Otwock represents the 13th such heavily guarded shipment of fuel since 2004.
The NNSA contributed $490,000 to IAEA to pay for last week’s transfer, which represents the second time material has been brought to Russia from Otwock. In the first shipment, in 2006, IAEA officials moved some 40 kilograms – or about six-bombs’ worth – of highly enriched uranium from the Polish research reactor.
The original timetable for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative was to repatriate all fresh fuel by the end of 2005 and all spent Russia fuel by 2010.
The programme has fallen somewhat behind schedule, though, due largely to the daunting amount of paperwork required authorize each of the shipments, Matthew Bunn of Harvard University’s Managing the Atom project told the Global Security Network newswire.
Bunn estimated that all fresh highly enriched uranium fuel for which repatriation agreements have been arranged would be sent back to Russia within the next three years.
Russian American partnership estimated as ‘strong’
“We have a strong partnership with Russia and we will continue working with Rosatom and other Russian agencies to counter the global threats of terrorisms and nuclear proliferation,” said NNSA head of nonproliferation programmes William Tobey in a statement.
The Polish reactor continues to burn Russian-origin highly enriched uranium. But the reactor was given several security upgrades in 2004 by the NNSA. Officials there say they are also assisting efforts to convert the Maria Research Reactor into one that can burn low enriched uranium by 2009.