Protecting uranium with secret shipments

Oct. 23, 2008
U.S. official tells how nations cooperated to keep nuclear materials safe

WASHINGTON -- Enough processed uranium to make six nuclear weapons was secretly transported thousands of miles by truck, rail and ship on a month long trip from a research reactor in Budapest, Hungary, to a facility in Russia so it could be more closely protected against theft, U.S. officials revealed Wednesday.

The shipment, conducted under tight secrecy and security, included a three-week trip by cargo ship through the Mediterranean, up the English Channel and the North Sea to Russia's Arctic seaport of Murmansk, the only port Russia allows for handling nuclear material.

The 13 radiation-proof casks, each weighing 17,000 pounds, arrived by rail at the secure nuclear material facility at Mayak in Siberia on Wednesday, carrying 341 pounds of weapons usable uranium, said Kenneth Baker, a National Nuclear Security Administration official who oversaw the complex project.

It is the largest recovery to date of highly enriched uranium provided either by the former Soviet Union or the United States under a program, begun in the 1950s, aimed at spreading the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The two countries have been working to return the spent fuel from reactors around the world because at many of the facilities, including the one in Budapest, security is lax, raising the possibility of the material being stolen by terrorists.

"It was a big shipment, the biggest one we've ever done," Baker said in an interview with The Associated Press hours after he received word that the shipment had arrived at its final destination in Russia. "It was basically enough to make six nuclear weapons."

Under the U.S.-Russian program, the NNSA, which is part of the Energy Department, has completed 15 recoveries of U.S.-origin highly enriched uranium from research reactors in more than a dozen countries since 2005. The agency also was involved in three earlier shipments of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium that were removed from the Czech Republic, Latvia and Bulgaria and returned to Russia.

But the project targeting the 341 pounds of highly radioactive used fuel from the Budapest research reactor was particularly complex and challenging, said Baker, the NNSA's assistant deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation.

It began at 3 a.m. in Budapest in late September and ended early Wednesday, Washington time, at the nuclear facility at Mayak in Russian Siberia. In between the shipment moved without notice aboard truck and rail to the port of Koper in Slovenia and then by special cargo ship through the ocean shipping lanes that encircle Europe, always staying in international waters at least 12 miles from shore, according to Baker.

The unusual roundabout route was needed because "we couldn't ship it through Ukraine" even though that would have been a more direct route to Russia, Baker said.

So in the early hours in late September, the 13 casks were secretly loaded onto trucks at the Budapest facility and taken to the city's train station, where it was transported onto a special train - one cask per car - for an eight-hour trip to the port of Koper in Slovenia on the Adriatic Sea.

The shipments then moved through the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, up the Atlantic and into the English Channel, the North and Norwegian seas and then on to Murmansk by Saturday. From there the shipment was loaded on a train for the long trip to Siberia.

"It was the most complicated trip we've ever taken by far," said Baker, who oversaw the loading and early part of the shipment but did not accompany the shipment after it went to sea, instead returning to Washington.

Early Wednesday, he received notice that the shipment had arrived at Mayak, where security is far tighter than in Budapest.

In Budapest "they had a fence and a guard," said Baker, although some security improvements have been made with U.S. help over the past year. Still, Baker added, "you don't want to leave it there."

The Hungarian reactor now is being converted to use low-enriched uranium that can't be used in a weapon and won't be a potential terrorist target.

So far, including the shipment from Budapest, 1,685 pounds of Russian-origin uranium has been retrieved from 11 countries. But there are still a significant number of reactors that have either U.S. or Russian highly enriched uranium, including some with security far less than what is desirable, according to nuclear nonproliferation activists.


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