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International Operation Removes Uranium From Serbia

September 2002

By Paul Kerr

In August, the United States, Russia, and Serbia, with the approval of Yugoslavia, moved enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to produce two nuclear weapons from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade to Russia, where it will be converted into low-grade uranium fuel for commercial reactors.

Under Russian and U.S. monitoring, the 48 kilograms of HEU were repackaged August 15 and 16 into Russian nuclear material transport canisters. The canisters were transported to the Belgrade airport August 22 under heavy security provided by Yugoslav special police and military units and then flown by Russian aircraft to the Ulyanovsk Nuclear Processing Plant in Dmitrovgrad, Russia, where the HEU will be blended down into low-grade uranium fuel, according to the State Department.

Planning for the operation, which was kept secret for security reasons, had been ongoing for approximately one year, according to the Serbian government. U.S. officials had long been concerned that the Vinca Institute, whose reactor was decommissioned in 1984, was not secure enough to protect HEU against theft or terrorist attack.

The State Department said that it contributed approximately $2 million to the project. A Department of Energy team monitored the planning and execution of the operation at Vinca, and additional Energy personnel verified the arrival and integrity of the fuel shipment in Russia and are providing technical expertise for the conversion process, according to the department.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) also participated in the operation. NTI, a private U.S. organization co-chaired by Ted Turner, vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), played an unusual role. NTI contributed $5 million to fund IAEA efforts to decommission the reactor and manage its 2.4 tons of spent fuel, which is not usable in weapons, in order to reduce safety and environmental risks. This role was important because Yugoslavia would not agree to the HEU’s removal without such an arrangement, and the State Department lacks the legal authority to fund spent fuel management, according to NTI.

The unprecedented cooperative effort earned praise from both Russia and the United States. On August 23, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called the operation a “model of how governments, the international community, and the private sector can work together to reduce the threat posed by these materials.” The same day, the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy observed that the nuclear material transfer was “an example of Russian-American cooperation in preventing the threat of international terrorism,” according to the state-run news agency RIA Novosti.

The successful execution of the HEU transfer might signal the beginning of an effort in U.S. nonproliferation policy to move dangerous nuclear materials from vulnerable sites, mostly in the former Soviet Union, to more secure areas. Similar operations in other countries are being planned for the future, a State Department official said in an August 26 interview.

An NTI staff member said August 26 that, although NTI views the operation as a model for the future and would be supportive of future operations, it was unlikely that the organization would become involved in them. An NTI press release said that the organization “does not undertake activities that are inherently the responsibility of government” but had participated in the Vinca operation because of the legal constraints on State Department funding.