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Uzbek Nuclear Material Removed

Carina Linder

Under a classified mission, spent fuel containing 63 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) was successfully returned to Russia from Uzbekistan, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced April 20.

Monitored by the IAEA, the bomb-grade spent nuclear material was transported in four separate shipments from the Uzbekistan Institute of Nuclear Physics to the Mayak plant in Russia, where it will be reprocessed over the next several years. The high-security operation was conducted jointly by the United States, the Russian Federation, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the IAEA as part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), an NNSA program to repatriate nuclear and radiological materials from around the globe.

The transportation of the nuclear material, enough to produce at least two nuclear weapons, was carried out over a course of 16 days. The Uzbek material was of “particular concern” because it had lost much of its radioactivity and therefore would be easier to handle by terrorists or others. The mission was completed on April 19, after six years of planning.

The HEU was originally supplied to Uzbekistan by the Soviet Union for use in its 10-megawatt research reactor, located near the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. The reactor currently produces isotopes for medical purposes.

This is the first time Russian HEU spent fuel has been returned to Russia from other countries under a 2005 agreement on nuclear security cooperation between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (See ACT, March 2005.) Indeed, “[i]t is the first time that fuel used in a research reactor has been repatriated to Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union,” the IAEA noted. Still, roughly 1,000 kilograms of spent Russian-origin HEU fuel remains abroad, according to estimates by scientists at Princeton University.

The shipment follows earlier IAEA- and/or GTRI-supported operations made in order to transfer un-irradiated reactor fuel containing HEU back to its country of origin. Approximately 186 kilograms of HEU fresh fuel have been returned to Russia from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Libya, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Uzbekistan under the GTRI program, according to the NNSA. There are more than 100 research reactors around the world still running on weapons-grade HEU.