Libya ships Soviet nuke fuel to Dimitrovgrad, leaving a money trail

Publish date: March 18, 2004

Written by: Mikhail Piskunov

DIMITROVGRAD, Central Russia—Importing foreign parcels of Soviet produced highly enriched uranium into Russia under a Russian American cooperative agreement supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency is becoming a lucrative business for the Scientific Research Institute for Atomic Reactors, or NIIAR, at Dimitrovgrad in the mid-Volga region.

The institute seems to be raking it in, while the opacity of how the money is spent is tilling fertile soil for the growth of criminal roots.

As was revealed mid March, a load of cargo arrived in the Ulyanovsk Region from Libya on a plane owned by Volga-Dnepr airlines. In the early morning hours of March 9th the cargo was brought to the nuclear centre at Dimitrovgrad, or NIIAR, some 600 kilometers east of Moscow.

The load delivered to the centre consisted of several containers filled with fuel assemblies from an IRT-2M reactor in operation at the Tajour nuclear research centre, south of the Libyan capitol of Tripoli. The containers hold 16 kilograms of nuclear fuel. The fuel is enriched by 80 percent with uranium 235. This highly enriched nuclear fuel had been given to Libya in the 1980s by the Soviet Union. Now it is back in Russia through the efforts of Russian-American threat reduction cooperation.

This is one step in the Russia-US-IAEA tri-lateral initiative aimed at non-proliferation and preventing nuclear terrorism. Such measures, naturally, cannot be greeted with a lack of support. Indeed, as soon came to light, Libya was acquiring nuclear materials and corresponding equipment, and was carrying out a programme to create weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. Then, when Libya’s administration agreed to cease further pursuits in this area, it was decided to send the Soviet produced uranium back to Russia, and any Libyan equipment related to its nuclear programme were handed over to the United States.

The nuclear fuel returned from Libya represents the third nuclear shipment to Russia, and ultimately, to NIIAR, in the past two years. The first came in 2002 with a delivery of uranium from Yugoslavia’s Vinch nuclear research institute. Russia’s Dimitrovgrad institute received just below 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium.

Then, in December of 2003, 17 kilograms of uranium fuel was delivered to NIIAR from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Nuclear Research and Atomic Energy.

Early March brought Libya’s nuclear gift.

The Libyan delivery to NIIAR raises many questions, though answers are hard to come by, as the institute’s management is keeping its silence. NIIAR’s press service has published no information about the delivery in any media since it arrived. It’s web site has also avoided the topic. It was necessary, therefore, to analyze information from a variety of sources. Alas, their information is not only scant but contradictory.

What is in the containers?
But what is it, precisely, that they brought to NIIAR from Libya? Was it pure un-irradiated plutonium, or was it spent nuclear fuel, or SNF? These have been the central questions that we have discussed at the Centre for Assistance on Citizen’s Initiatives, the NGO I run in Dimitrovgrad. According to a March 9th Russian newswire report from the state-run ITAR-TASS, the fuel assemblies had been extracted from a reactor by IAEA specialists. This would mean we are talking about spent nuclear fuel assemblies. If they decide to reuse this fuel for nuclear energy purposes, they will then have to reprocess the fuel. To do that, they will have to at least partially cleanse the fuel of fissionable materials, which, without fail means the formation of a new parcel of radioactive waste at NIIAR, of which there are plenty.

A counterbalance to the ITAR-TASS information cited above, however, was two web dispatches on the site of the former Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, which is now known as Agency of Atomic Energy. The two Minatom articles, which included a report from the Interfax Russian newswire, both reported that the Libyan shipment contained “fresh nuclear fuel.” It may be that this is the correct version of events, though it is hard to believe that a container full of fuel prepared in the Soviet Union 20 years ago returned from Libya—after such a protracted period of time—un-irradiated. After all, it’s not news the IRT-2M reactor at the Tajour centre has been operating in recent years. This would suggest that the facility at least housed SNF, begging the question, where did that SNF go? It couldn’t have just disappeared without a trace. Moreover, SNF presents no less a danger than “clean” un-irradiated nuclear fuel.

But, can it be that they did drop off a load of SNF at NIIAR? If that is the case, then it was no accident that Interfax reported the following: “Minatom estimates that the import of fuel with American cooperation—the programme is US-funded—will aid Russia in its entry onto the global market in SNF.”


Following the Money
The issue of the financing of the project to return Soviet era nuclear materials to Russia should force one to stop and ponder. This operation is not bringing NIIAR small change, and one can only guess at the sums this deal are reaping for the institute. All that is known is that the project is financed by the Americans—primarily by the US Department of Energy, or DOE, and the money in play cannot be paltry.

For example, after the Yugoslavian fuel assemblies were removed and sent to NIIAR, US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, in an interview with Russian daily Izvestiya, pledged $400,000 to reprocess the Yugoslavian uranium. The DOE will deliver on this pledge. To take the fuel out of Yugoslavia, the Washington-based non-proliferation NGO, The Nuclear Threat Initiative, or NTI, put up $5m of its own money, while the US federal government, because of environmental clean-up restrictions placed on threat reduction efforts, put up only $2m.

According to the DOE, the IAEA and officials from the Russian-American programme to remove the uranium to NIIAR from Libya, the operation cost $700,000. Part of that money was obviously spent on transportation, and the rest, apparently was collected by NIIAR. How much is as yet uncertain. One can only guess.

Deductive reasoning suggests this: Receiving nuclear parcels of Soviet pedigree is becoming a very lucrative business for the management of NIIAR. And this concerns not hard cash payments from abroad. Un-irradiated, “clean” uranium is a most valuable material, which NIIAR is receiving practically for free. And after down-blending, this HEU can be used to make new fuel assemblies for both research and energy producing reactors. Again, sheer profit.

NIIAR’s opaque use of funding
The Centre for Assistance on Citizen’s Initiatives frequently receives information indicating that private firms are leeching off the profitable deals on Soviet era fuel return. For example, according to a report that appeared on the web site, “Technical help in filling out documentation and in transport for the fuel from Libya was furnished by the Sosny firm, which is also participating in contract work with regarding the Paks Nuclear Power Plant in Hungary, which ships its SNF to Russia.” It is known to the Centre for Assistance on Citizen’s Initiatives that Sosny was created by management-level employees of one of NIIAR’s leading departments, and that huge sums of money pass through the firm. One can draw one’s own conclusions.

All the while, workers at NIIAR live in conditions of poverty: workers’ salaries are relatively low and are often severely delayed. NIIAR currently owes three month’s worth of back pay to its workers.

NIIAR workers owed three month’s back-pay
Recently, Dmitrograd’s mayor participated in a call-in show on local radio. Hearing the complaints about wage arrears, he promised that the city would seek means to boost NIIAR’s finances. It would be, however, infinitely more fruitful to engage law enforcement and corresponding regulatory agencies in a search for leaking funds. In the same vein, it would be of use to the mayor to know the following fact: In order to import SNF, NIIAR has to pay the regional administration. For example, the Zheleznogorsk Mining and Chemical Combine, located in the Krasnoyarsk region of Central Siberia, gets 25 percent of the gross payment for the import and storage of spent nuclear fuel to the chemical combine’s RT-2 SNF storage facility. But NIIAR management plays the local administration on this point like a fiddle: After NIIAR is engaged primarily in scientific research. City and regional authorities sing NIIAR’s praises while promising the population all kinds of benefits due to Dimitrovgrad’s proximity to NIIAR, and tell the worried citizens that their city is in the running for special federal status a science city. But according to out experts here at the Centre for Assistance on Citizen’s Initiatives, these are little more than pipe dreams that have to be seriously discussed.

Mikhail Piskunov is chairman of the Centre for Assistance on Citizen’s Initiatives in the city of Dimitrovgrad. He can be reached by email at