Belarus Agrees to Give Up HEU Stockpile

Robert Golan-Vilella

Belarus has committed to give up its stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) by 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov said Dec. 1 in a joint statement.

Clinton and Martynov made the announcement after meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, on the sidelines of a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Martynov announced that “Belarus has decided to eliminate all of its stocks” of HEU, the statement said. The United States “intends to provide technical and financial assistance to support the completion of this effort as expeditiously as possible,” it added.

Prior to the agreement, Belarus, Russia, the United States, and the International Atomic Energy Agency conducted two secret operations in which portions of Belarusian HEU were moved into secure facilities in Russia. In these operations, conducted Oct. 22 and Nov. 28, a total of 85 kilograms of HEU were transported, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) spokesman Damien LaVera said in a Dec. 2 e-mail. One shipment of 41 kilograms was slightly irradiated; the other consisted of fresh HEU fuel, LaVera said.

LaVera declined to comment on the amount of HEU remaining in Belarus following the two operations and on the enrichment levels of that material or the HEU sent to Russia. Official and unofficial assessments put the total level of the Belarusian HEU stockpile at roughly 200 kilograms prior to the removals. According to a 2010 estimate by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, more than 40 kilograms were weapons grade.

The two HEU shipments took several years of planning, LaVera said in a Dec. 17 e-mail. Regarding the remainder of the material, “the Belarusian Government approached the U.S. about reaching an agreement a few months ago, which led to the issuance of the joint statement in Astana in December,” he added.

In his April 2009 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama announced an international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material within four years. (See ACT, May 2009.) One year later, he hosted the first-ever nuclear security summit in Washington, where 47 nations met to endorse this goal and detail a series of steps that they would take toward its completion. (See ACT, May 2010.) The next summit is slated to take place in Seoul in 2012. The Clinton-Martynov statement said Belarus intends to get rid of its HEU by the time of that meeting.

Belarus was not invited to participate in the Washington summit. At the time, its president, Alexander Lukashenko, vehemently declared that Belarus would not give up its uranium. Lukashenko boasted that Belarus possessed hundreds of kilograms of HEU and would continue to use it for research purposes, Interfax news agency reported in April.

As a result of Lukashenko’s reversal of this policy, South Korea “has agreed to invite Belarus, contingent upon the completion of its highly enriched uranium removal,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at a Dec. 1 press conference.

With the exception of Russia’s holdings, the stockpiles of fresh HEU in Belarus and Ukraine are the largest in the former Soviet Union, LaVera said. Kazakhstan has some fresh HEU, but its stockpile is much smaller, he added.

At the Washington summit, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pledged to eliminate his country’s stockpile of HEU by the 2012 summit in Seoul. Ukraine recently took a major step toward meeting that goal. In a Dec. 31 press release, the NNSA announced the shipment to Russia of 50 kilograms of fresh HEU from three facilities in Ukraine: the Kiev Institute for Nuclear Research, the Kharkiv Institute for Physics and Technology, and the Sevastopol National University of Nuclear Industry and Energy.

Obama praised the Ukrainian removal operation, saying in a Dec. 31 statement that it “brings us all one step closer to securing all vulnerable nuclear materials.”

According to the press release, the NNSA also made two shipments of low-enriched uranium into Ukraine to replace the HEU at the Kiev and Kharkiv facilities. The five shipments took place in the second half of December, the NNSA said.

The NNSA provided Ukraine with new safety equipment and agreed to work with Ukraine and Russia to build a state-of-the-art neutron source facility at the Kharkiv Institute, the press release said.