Removing Nuclear Fuel from Vinca: Closing a Nuclear Chapter

22 December 2010
© IAEAShut down 26 years ago, the Vinča nuclear research reactor in Serbia attracted global attention because the site continued to house highly enriched uranium fuel that was stored in poor conditions. With Serbia's support, a coalition of governments, international institutions and nongovernmental organizations resolved to transfer the dangerous material to Russia, which had originally supplied the fuel.Fresh nuclear fuel rods, like this one, were removed in 2002, but over 8000 spent nuclear fuel rods remained behind, creating a persistent risk of terrorist threat or environmental accident.To enable their final removal, the fuel rods were packaged in large, extremely durable casks.The casks ensure that the spent fuel rods can be transported safely without releasing their radioactivity into the environment.The casks are placed in these shipping containers, capable of holding up to 31 metric tons.The Vinča site has received security upgrades in recent years as the fuel removal project was planned and prepared.On 18 November 2010, the fuel transfer began with workers loading  containers onto heavy cargo trucks.When all the trucks are loaded, there are 16 trucks with these containers, the largest shipment of spent fuel ever removed as part of the international program to repatriate research reactor fuel.As the convoy prepares to leave Vinča in the early morning hours, each truck is assigned a heavily armed guard. About 3000 security personnel have been mobilized to protect the shipment out of Serbia.After leaving Vinča, the convoy travels 200 kilometers of closed highways to Subotica, on the Serbian-Hungarian border.At Subotica, the containers are moved to railcars at a quiet industrial site.In just a few hours, all the cars loaded and the train prepares for departures.On 20 November 2010, the train makes final preparations before leaving Serbia in the predawn mist.Twenty-four hours later the train arrives in the port of Koper, Slovenia, where the containers are again moved to trucks and then to a small cargo ship.The PUMA has waited offshore for the train's arrival, so its time at the dock is as short as possible.The containers are loaded one-by-one.Crew members secure the cargo after the final container has been loaded.Slovenian officials ensure there are no security incidents while the nuclear material is under their watch.A crew member makes a final radiation check — only background radiation is detected.The PUMA sets sail for its three-week journey down the Adriatic Sea, out the Mediterranean Sea, and around Europe to the Russian port of Murmansk.The PUMA arrives at the Russia’s arctic port of Murmansk in mid-December.Crews unload the containers onto railcars again for the last leg of the journey to Russia’s reprocessing facility at Mayak, where still-usable uranium will be separated for use in nuclear power plant fuel.© IAEA
Last update: 16 October 2014