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HEU Removed from Poland, Libya

Michael Nguyen with Jeremy Wolland

A multinational effort removed and returned more than 40 kilograms of fresh Soviet-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Poland to Russia, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced Aug. 10. Separately, another operation removed the last remaining quantity of fresh HEU from Libya.

The United States provided technical assistance and funding for the Polish operation, which NNSA officials said was the largest to date under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), a two-year-old program intended to bolster efforts to return fresh and spent nuclear fuel from Soviet-design nuclear reactors worldwide. U.S. experts worked with their Polish, Russian, and International Atomic Energy Agency counterparts to remove the reactor fuel from the Polish Institute for Atomic Energy in Otwock-Swierk, Poland. Officials placed the HEU in five specialized canisters, which were then moved under guard to an airfield near Warsaw and flown to a secure facility in Dimitrovgrad, Russia. The material, which would have been sufficient for one or two nuclear weapons, will be blended down into low-enriched uranium (LEU) for use in nuclear reactors at an enrichment level ill suited for military use.

GTRI will also fund the planned 2009 conversion of Poland’s MARIA research reactor from HEU reactor fuel to LEU. The Polish Institute for Atomic Energy uses the reactor to produce isotopes for medical treatment and diagnoses, test power-reactor fuel, and conduct other research.

NNSA spokesperson Julianne Smith said some of the fresh HEU had been delivered from the Soviet Union to Poland in the 1960s. She would not comment on the cost of the operation or if any fresh HEU remained in Poland. In the current fiscal year, NNSA received $14.7 million for activities related to the securement and conversion of Russian-origin reactors and has requested $30 million for these activities in fiscal year 2007, which begins Oct. 1.

During a separate operation completed July 26, officials secured and returned to Russia three kilograms of fresh HEU from the Tajoura Nuclear Research Center in Libya. During the two-day operation, three specialized containers of HEU reactor fuel were flown to Russia to be blended down. This operation removed the last fresh HEU from Libya, according to Smith. It follows a March 2004 operation that returned 17 kilograms of HEU to Russia from the same location. (See ACT, April 2004.) NNSA also announced July 27 that the conversion of the Tajoura IRT-1 research reactor to LEU fuel would be completed in the next several months.

Including the most recent material from Poland and Libya, about 69 kilograms of fresh HEU reactor fuel have been secured since GTRI’s inception. When announced in May 2004, the initiative brought together many different programs and efforts to secure both U.S.- and Soviet-origin material and reactors already underway. Before GTRI’s inception, these efforts had already repatriated 96 kilograms of fresh HEU from Bulgaria, Libya, Romania, and Serbia since 2000. (See ACT, July/August 2004.) According to a NNSA fact sheet updated Aug. 17, an additional 300 kilograms of former Soviet fresh HEU reactor fuel remains in facilities worldwide. GTRI expects to complete the return of all eligible Soviet-origin fresh HEU material by the end of 2006.

GTRI is following an accelerated, prioritized schedule developed after the Bratislava Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation issued by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in February 2005 (See ACT, March 2005), in which both presidents agreed to make securing vulnerable materials a top priority. The operation in Poland was part of this new schedule. GTRI has also been working to secure U.S.-origin fresh and spent HEU and plans to convert several HEU-fueled reactors in the United States in the next few months.

All Soviet-origin spent HEU materials not in reactors cores will be secured by the end of 2010, according to the fact sheet. GTRI’s first operation to secure spent fuel began in April when it assisted with the return of 63 kilograms of spent HEU from Uzbekistan. (See ACT, June 2006.)