The agreement, signed in 2004 between Moscow and Washington, aims to recover highly enriched uranium from the poorly protected research facilities to which both countries sent fuel over several decades.
Russia has pledged to repatriate 200 kilograms of highly enriched uranium fuel, supplied to Romania back in 1957, for temporary technological storage, subsequent processing and ultimate disposal, a spokesman for Rosatom told Bellona Web.
Rosatom estimated that the uranium, which is enriched to 36 percent, would be sufficient for building a nuclear weapon. Standard weapons enrichment is usually about 70 percent.
Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, which is responsible for the repatriation, was quoted by the ITAR TASS news agency as saying such operations “are evidence of Russia’s responsibility for ensuring the non-proliferation of nuclear arms.”
Borbala Vaida, director of the Romanian National Committee for the Control of Nuclear Activity, signed the fuel repatriation agreement for Romania on Saturday with Kiriyenko, the Rosatom spokesman said.
“Bellona is glad the highly enriched uranium fuel is now going into better, hopefully more secure storage than it was in Romania,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s nuclear physicist.
“But we also think that even in Russia a better job of securing storage facilities for highly enriched uranium and other materials that would be of interest to terrorists could be done,” he added.
Igor Kudrik, Bellona’s Russian nuclear industry expert agreed.
The cost of removing Romania’s highly enriched uranium estimated at $4.5 million, which is to be disbursed by the US Department of State, ITAR-TASS said. A spokesman for State confirmed the cost to Bellona Web in Monday email interview.
The removal of 1.5 kilograms of waste requires five tonnes of protective equipment, according to Russian and American officials’ figures provided to Bellona Web by Rosatom and the State Department.
In the current project, Romania will pay about $700,000 dollars for keeping processed nuclear fuel in Russia, the news agency reported.
The experimental nuclear reactor in Romania, loaded with Russian fuel, was shut down in 2002, and in 2003 Russia removed part of the waste. The operation will be completed this year.
The other countries covered in the agreement
The repatriation of the Romanian fuel is part of the $450 million Global Threat Reduction Initiative, signed in 2004, which was introduced to countermand the threat of the nuclear material – which is by and large held at poorly secured research facilities and universities – from falling into the hands of terrorists.
The initiative’s aim is to retrieve highly enriched uranium sent by Moscow to 20 reactors in 17 countries and ship it back to Russia for storage and down blending.
Other countries covered by the fuel-return programme are Belarus, Bulgaria, China, the Czech Republic, North Korea, Egypt, Germany, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Libya, Ukraine, Vietnam, Poland and Yugoslavia.
Reactors in Uzbekistan, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania and Poland are thought to be among the highest priority targets. The lion’s share of the repatriation costs are underwritten by the United States.
The research reactor fuel in question was shipped by Russia to several countries beginning in the 1950s.
The United States also exported nuclear reactors and highly enriched uranium during the same era, starting with President Dwight Eisenhower’s "Atoms for Peace" programme.
Under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the United States has removed all US-origin highly enriched uranium fuel from 16 countries on its list, according to The National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous body within the US Energy Department.
As of November 2008, the NNSA said it had repatriated fuel from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Thailand.
Kiriyenko on Saturday said Russia has removed 650 kilograms of its nuclear fuel from Latvia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Vietnam, Bulgaria and other countries. The largest amount – 154 kilograms – was shipped back to Russia from Hungary.
Politics or practicality
The Soviet Union and later Russia sent out so much fuel that eminent Russian environmentalist Alexei Yablokov says all of it can never be 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 told Bellona Web when the agreement was signed.
"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.
Security problems don’t stop in Russia
US nuclear experts have said, and Russian officials have acknowledged, that getting the fuel out of the reactors is only part of the problem. Russian facilities, by the admission of Rosatom officials, have security problems of their own.
Bellona’s Bøhmer stated the problem bluntly, saying, “We are not 100 percent guaranteed that Russian authorities know the whereabouts of their total nuclear inventory.”
Bellona’s concerns were echoed by Edwin Lyman, senior scientist in the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
He raised concerns when the agreement was initially inked about the 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.