Global Threat Reduction Initiative repatriates Russian HEU from Czech Republic

Photo courtesy of SUJB

Publish date: December 11, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

The Rez Nuclear Research Institute near Prague has returned 80 kilograms of the nuclear material it amassed over its 50-year existence under a US-Russian agreement to repatriate highly enriched Russian origin uranium being used worldwide in research reactors.

The 80 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) was brought back to Russia on Saturday after a week-long journey by truck and rail from the Czech Republic under the trilateral Russian-American-International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) programme, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.

Signed in 2004, the programme has as its goal the repatriation to Russia of Russian origin HEU from 20 reactors in 17 countries. The agreement was the result of long unheeded calls from scientists and nuclear officials that supplies of HEU at research and university reactors around the world are particularly vulnerable to theft by terrorists.

The HEU safely reached Russia Saturday, Czech State Authority for Nuclear Safety (SUJB in its Czech acronym) chairwoman Dana Drabova told Bellona Web Tuesday.

The returned HEU is slated, as per the 2004 plan, to be stored at the Dmitrovgrad All-Russia Institute for Atomic reactors, known as NIIAR in its Russian acronym. Dmitrovgrad—situated to the east of Moscow—has been the beneficiary of much US threat reduction spending over the past several years to beef-up its security.

Security concerns remain
Nonetheless, concerns about the safety of the material in Russia—where breaches are possible at even the most ostensibly well-secured sites are possible—remain high. NIIAR officials could not be reached for comment about the incoming HEU. But even Rosatom officials interviewed at the time the initiative was signed agreed security continued to be a vexing problem.

"Our protection system against terrorist attacks must be modernized. We know this. We pay great attention to it,” said Rosatom spokesman Nikolai Shingaryov in an interview with Bellona Web at the time.

The programme has been underway for a comparatively short period of time, though has managed to repatriate HEU from several countries, most recently Vietnam, Poland. Others have included Bulgaria, Germany, Latvia and Libya. North Korea, Egypt, Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, and China are also on the Initiative’s list of countries to return HEU to Russia.

The Czech Republic’s SUJB deputy chairman Petr Krs told Bellona Web Tuesday that the HEU returned to Russia would be reprocessed for further use, but it is thus far unclear as to what happens to the HEU in Russia’s backed up and bankrupt reprocessing industry.

Politics versus practicality

Though costs paid for transport, storage and reprocessing by the members of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, many environmental organisations in Russia, including Bellona, have noted that reprocessing plans most often stop at storing waste, thus increasing the nuclear environmental load on Russia as a whole.

Even eminent Russian environmentalist Aleksei Yablokov, president of the Moscow-based Centre for Ecological Policy of Russia, while backing the initiative, recognises it is more political than practical in nature.

"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," said Yablokov in a recent 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.

US satisfied with the transfer

The US embassy in Prague confirmed to Bellona Web Tuesday that Rez had returned 80 kilos of highly enriched uranium fuel. The embassy welcomed the transport.

US ambassador Richard Graber said in a statement that it was an example of international cooperation aimed to lower the risk of nuclear terrorism.

Transport conditions remain closely-guarded secret
A week ago, the strictly watched radioactive material was loaded at the railway station in Mesice, near Prague, said Krs.

The haul was reloaded from trucks to a freight train. A authorities have declined to elaborate on the special event.

"It was a train transporting over 100 tonnes," Krs told Bellona Web. Thanks to special containers, he said, the whole load was transported on a single train, which he said minimised risks of spills or attacks along the route.

Both the route and schedule of the strictly controlled haul were kept secret, Krs added.