Nuclear bomb-grade fuel removed from Germany; largest such UN-monitored operation
“This action is an important step towards promoting a global cleanout of HEU in the civilian sector,” UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Project Manager Arnaud Atger said of the five-day operation that ended yesterday. “The security of HEU is of particular concern due to the technical feasibility of constructing a crude nuclear explosive device from HEU.”
The mission was jointly carried out under tight security measures by Germany, Russia, the United States and the IAEA. A total of 268 kilos of HEU and 58 kilos of fresh low-enriched uranium fuel (LEU) were taken from the reactor in Rossendorf near Dresden and airlifted to Russia, where the fuel originated. Russia will blend the HEU down into LEU for further civilian use.
IAEA safeguards inspectors monitored the loading of the fuel to 18 special transportation containers and sealed them. They were joined by experts from both the US National Nuclear Security Administration and from Russia during this process and during the departure of the cargo plane from Dresden Airport.
The removal was carried out under an IAEA Technical Cooperation project, entitled ‘Repatriation, Management and Disposition of Fresh and/or Spent Nuclear Fuel from Research Reactors.’ This project supports the US-funded Global Threat Reduction Initiative that aims to identify, secure and recover high-risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the globe.
“Every kilogramme of material that is moved is one less kilogramme of material that could be used by terrorists to make a bomb,” US National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator Andrew Bieniawski said. “The total amount of 326 kg [kilos] of fresh fuel is the largest ever shipment ever done under our programme.”
Before the latest shipment, the IAEA had facilitated 11 shipments of a total of 165 kilos of fresh HEU from eight countries – Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Libya, Uzbekistan, Czech Republic, Latvia and Poland.
The latest batch was supplied by the former Soviet Union the former German Democratic Republic in 1960s and 1970s. After German reunification, the Federal Government decided to shut down the two Soviet-design research reactors at Rossendorf, which were decommissioned in 1991 and 2005. The fuel had since then been kept under strict security measures at the site.
Research reactors produce radioisotopes for medicine and industry, for research in physics, biology and material science, and for scientific education and training.
More than half of research reactors worldwide – 132 out of 244 – are still fuelled with HEU, considered high-risk since it can also be used in the making of a nuclear explosive device. Together with the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the IAEA works with Member States to return fresh or spent fuel and convert their research reactors to LEU, leading to the eventual elimination of international trade in HEU for research reactors.