UN sends uranium back to Russia

Hundreds of kilograms of uranium from a German Soviet-era nuclear reactor arrived in Russia this week for re-processing, as part of an international effort to eradicate highly enriched nuclear material around the world.

The 268kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) that originated in the USSR were flown from the Rossendorf research reactor near Dresden to the Moscow region. The cargo represents only a small fraction of the total 1,850 tonnes of HEU still stored around the world.

Russia began reprocessing nuclear material from around its former empire two years ago to prevent it from getting into the hands of terrorists, aided by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s “repatriation, management and disposition of fresh and/or spend nuclear fuel from research reactors” programme.

The radioactive cargo contained enough HEU to make several nuclear bombs, and was bigger all the HEU so far transported under the UN programme, which has seen 165kg of fresh HEU removed from eight countries – Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Libya, Uzbekistan, Czech Republic, Latvia and Poland – since it started in 2004.

The five-day operation culminated in 268kg of HEU and 58kg of fresh low-enriched uranium being loaded onto a Russian Ilyushin plane in the early hours of Monday morning and flown to a reprocessing plant in Podolsk near Moscow.

Although enriched to as much as 36 percent, the Rossendorf HEU is still far below bomb-grade but can be processed to make nuclear weapons.

“This action is an important step towards promoting a global cleanout of HEU in the civilian sector,” said project manager Arnaud Atger. “The security of HEU is of particular concern due to the technical feasibility of constructing a crude nuclear explosive device from HEU.”

Greenpeace activists, who argue that the transport of radioactive material always introduced extra risk, managed to disrupt the transport but only briefly.

The US participated in the secret airlift operation as part of its Global Threat Reduction Initiative that aims to secure potential nuclear weapon materials around the world.

“Every kilogram of material that is moved is one less kilogram of material that could be used by terrorists to make a bomb. The total amount of 326 kg of fresh fuel is the largest ever shipment ever done under our programme,” said Andrew Bieniawski, deputy administrator at the US nuclear security administration.

Goska Romanowicz

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie