The Clock is Ticking To Secure Serbia’s Bomb-Grade Waste

by Kirstie Hansen/IAEA Staff Reporter

 

On the outskirts of Serbia’s capital Belgrade, nuclear weapons-grade waste sits in a pool of murky water. It is potential material to make dirty bombs: lots of them. An IAEA inspector team is at the Vinca facility, a shut-down research reactor at the Institute of Nuclear Sciences, to check that none of it is missing.

Small in size, the fuel elements fit into the palm of your hand. Each a radioactive cocktail of plutonium and high-enriched uranium (HEU) waste. “The biggest threat is, of course, the terrorists,” says Vinca’s former operations manager Obrad Sotic, who worries about levels of security on site. It would be very difficult for a terrorist to make a nuclear bomb out of them, experts like Sotic say. But explode a single fuel element with dynamite in a crude “dirty bomb” and it’s radioactive aerosol becomes a weapon of terror.

“For terrorists ready to commit suicide it won’t be a problem to steal a lot of these fuel elements, which are very light and easy to be taken, and use it as a dirty bomb,” Mr. Sotic said.

Now is the time to remove this fuel and begin decommissioning before the fuel and facility degrade further. —Mike Durst

Two IAEA inspectors lift covers over the pool to inspect the spent fuel. It simmers in stagnant water where it has been cooling for the past three decades. The room is roughly the size of a 25 metre swimming pool yet contains more than half of the HEU fuel that the Soviet Union ever produced to fuel research reactors outside of the Russian Federation.
It’s not only terrorist risks that are driving IAEA and Serb concerns about Vinca. The fuel elements are corroding and leaching radiation into the water. “After a long time in such conditions, the fuel starts leaking and the fission products, which are highly radioactive, spread out and of course endanger this room and the people working here. And, if it goes higher and higher it will endanger the surroundings,” Dr. Sotic warns.

The sound of Geiger counters crackle and beep, as the IAEA inspectors go about their job. Fears are the contamination will seep into the water table or escape via the ventilation system.

A village of 4,000 residents sits at the doorstep of the site. Dobrila Markovic owns a local shop five minutes drive away. “I’m not worried about it,” says the mother of three. “But during the war, I was scared that the facility might be bombed and spread radiation.”

The bomb-grade waste remained secure throughout major upheavals: the Balkan wars, the break-up of both Yugoslavia and the USSR. But in today’s climate with fears of nuclear terrorism rife, it poses a magnet for would-be nuclear thieves while it remains in such conditions at Vinca.

Mike Durst is the IAEA’s point man tasked to clean up the site. “The fuel is clearly both an environmental and a proliferation issue. Therefore in order to prevent an environmental hazard from occurring and to prevent, of course, the material from getting into the wrong hands, we need to get rid of it. And now is the window of time.”

It is a complex, costly operation. The price tag is well in excess of $10 million and funds are short. Plans are afoot to ship the nuclear fuel back to Russia, which supplied it during Soviet times to power a nuclear research reactor at Vinca. The reactor was shut down
22 years ago.

With IAEA support, almost 50 kilograms of unused HEU fuel was removed from the reactor on 23 August 2002 in a night-time operation that sealed off half of Serbia and involved 1,200 armed troops. The HEU — enough to make two simple nuclear bombs — was airlifted to Dimitrovgrad in Russia for reprocessing. Now the remaining spent fuel also needs to be sent to Russia, Durst and others say.

Logistically, it is a far more difficult operation. “It’s almost like comparing a light bulb to the sun: it is much, much more complicated,” Mr. Durst said. “This fuel is highly radioactive, it’s leaking, so everything will have to be done remotely.” The fuel must be removed from its current containers using special tools that have to be designed to operate remotely. Once it is repackaged, it will be put into heavily shielded shipping containers that are specifically licensed for international transport.

“We’re going to ship across several international boundaries — and the whole operation is going to take time, expertise and money,” Mr. Durst said.

A donor’s conference is planned for September 2006 at the IAEA’s Vienna headquarters to help raise awareness and the needed funds. Contributions from the Nuclear Threat Initiative ($5 million), the United States ($4 million) and the Agency’s Technical Cooperation programme ($1.5 million) are a first step to making the removal operation a reality.

Until Vinca is stripped of its spent fuel, it will remain a tempting terrorist target. “We need to close the financial gap to remove the fuel,” Serbian Science Minister Aleksandar Popovic said. “We need to ensure Vinca is safe from a possible terrorist attack and environmental danger,” he said.

The IAEA is working closely with the Serbians to upgrade security and protective measures on-site. From installing centrally monitored alarms and new ventilation systems, to constructing secure storage areas. “Without the help of the Agency, we wouldn’t make it,” Minister Popovic said.

The top priority is to get rid of the spent fuel. For Obrad Sotic that day cannot come soon enough. “Day by day it becomes more and more dangerous. And that’s the main reason we have to ship this fuel as soon as possible.”

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