Tonnes of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel from a defunct Serbian research reactor arrived safely in Russia on Wednesday (December 22nd), marking the completion of a major eight-year multinational project co-ordinated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The top-secret operation to transport about 2.5 metric tonnes of nuclear waste, including 13kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU), from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences outside Belgrade to Russia’s reprocessing facility at Mayak started on November 18th.
The shipment, consisting of more than 8,000 spent fuel elements, was the largest of this kind to have ever been made under an international programme to return such material to the countries that originally supplied it, the IAEA said in a statement Wednesday.
The mission to move the dangerous cargo from Serbia to the Russian reprocessing facility in the Urals was conducted among tight security measures and kept secret until its completion, in view of the “potential security and environmental threats” it posed.
The nearly 11,300km-long journey began in the very early hours of November 19th, when 16 heavy cargo trucks carrying the material, packaged into specially-designed transportation casks and secured in specialised shipping containers, pulled out of Vinca.
Thousands of Serbian police were involved in the convoy’s protection during its 200km drive to the Hungarian border, where the cargo was moved to a train and headed to Slovenia’s seaport of Koper. On November 21st, a cargo ship carrying the containers set sail for a three-week voyage to the Russian port of Murmansk. Once there, the material was moved again to a train for the journey’s final leg to Mayak.
“This was a very complicated project. We had to involve governments, contractors, and non-governmental organisations,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said on Wednesday. “It was a great success.”
According to the head of the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog, HEU can be very dangerous because, if such material is stolen, it could be used for “dirty bombs, or even nuclear weapons”.
IAEA Special Programme Manager John Kelly told the BBC that the Vinca fuel rods are only about 15cm long and their radioactivity has lessened over time.
“You can put it in your hand. You can wrap a stick of dynamite around it and you can put it in your backpack or purse,” he explained. “And you can create a disaster in just about any city.”
The Vinca Institute was established in 1948 and its Russian-made nuclear research reactor operated from 1959 until 1984, collecting all of the former Yugoslavia’s radioactive waste.
The programme to repatriate Serbia’s nuclear fuel and nuclear waste was launched in August 2002, when the first shipment of more than 48kg of HEU fresh fuel, said to be enough for the development of at least two nuclear bombs, was flown to Russia.
The latest one made the Balkan country the sixth nation in the world to have eliminated all of its HEU since April 2009, US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which was involved in the project, said on Wednesday.
“With the removal of all remaining highly enriched uranium from Serbia, we are one step closer to achieving US President Barack Obama’s goal of securing vulnerable nuclear material around the world,” NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino noted. “The elimination of this material reduces the risk that it could be stolen by terrorists and highlights Serbia’s commitment to global nuclear non-proliferation efforts.”