The Big Fix: Cleaning up Vinca

Published Date: 29 July 2009

© IAEA In July 2009, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei travelled to Vinca, a Serbian nuclear research facility, to review progress on the Agency’s largest-ever Technical Cooperation project. The Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences, less than an hour’s drive from Belgrade, is the site of an aging research reactor initially built with cooperation from the USSR in the 1950s.  The site has fallen on hard times in recent years, however, and there are radioactive dangers in need of urgent attention. Rusting barrels are strewn about the site, waiting to be conditioned and cleaned up.  These barrels are a small part of a bigger problem – radioactive waste from all over the former Yugoslavia was dumped and kept at Vinca for decades.  Now is the time for cleanup to begin. 8000 spent fuel elements – like this one pictured here – are the main concern at Vinca.  For decades, the elements have sat cooling in a pool of water, after being irradiated in Vinca's 'RA' research reactor.  The elements contain a mix of plutonium and uranium, and were used up in the Vinca reactor from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. In front of the RA reactor, Dr. ElBaradei discusses the spent fuel removal project with Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Božidar Đelić.  The project is estimated to cost up to $45 million and will involve overcoming a series of highly unique technical challenges. The spent fuel elements have sat for decades in  a pool of water here, in barrels that are breaking down and corroding.  The water in which the fuel sits is becoming increasingly contaminated, filled with sludge, and needs to be reconditioned before removing the elements for shipment back to Russia. Inside this hangar, disused radioactive sources, depleted uranium and other radioactive waste await removal and processing for long-term storage.  The area around this hangar is contaminated and the IAEA is helping Serbia to remediate the land and safely manage the removal of waste. Across the road, yet another hangar awaits removal of more waste.  Poor record keeping from the past few decades leaves the exact contents of the hangars a mystery.   The IAEA helped Serbia to construct this new facility, which will store the decaying waste for generations to come. A small village has grown up around the Vinca Institute, which lies just a few minutes from the Danube River.  This man, out with his grandchildren for an afternoon of fishing, expressed little concern over trouble from contamination at Vinca.  “My family has lived around Vinca for generations, and everything’s been fine for us. I don’t see any issue for my health or that of my grandchildren. While in Serbia, Dr. ElBaradei and an IAEA delegation met with the country's Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic and his staff.  ElBaradei recognized the Serbian government’s efforts to secure funding for the repatriation project.  He also discussed next steps towards sending the spent fuel back to Russia and decommissioning the Vinca reactor.
			The IAEA Director General also commended Serbia's signing of the Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Safeguards Agreement.  The agreement was signed in a ceremony on 3 July 2009 in Belgrade. In the meantime, the road ahead for a full clearing out of Vinca's radiological legacy carries on.  The work is complicated, expensive, and expected to take several more years – yet there is no option but to continue. © IAEA