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Weapons-Grade Material Curtailed

IAEA, U.S., Russia Assist Romania to Remove Fresh HEU Research Reactor Fuel

Staff Report

22 September 2003
Transfer of HEU fresh fuel from the Vinca research reactor in Serbia and Montenegro to Russia

IAEA has helped to transfer fresh fuel back to its country of origin. (Credit: Vinca)

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On Sunday 21 September 2003, the IAEA assisted Romanian authorities with the removal of weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) stored at the Institute for Nuclear Research, Pitesti.

About 14 kg of fresh HEU reactor fuel was airlifted from Romania to the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant in Russia. The Plant agreed to take back the HEU fuel which it had originally supplied to Romania. IAEA safeguards inspectors monitored and verified the packaging of the fuel for transportation and provided assistance by reviewing the national nuclear transport regulations and the relating site procedures in Romania.

Russia stated its intention to re-fabricate the fuel into low enriched uranium, making it unsuitable for use in nuclear weapons. It was originally procured for a Russian designed 2 megawatt research reactor at Magurele, in Romanian’s capital Bucharest. When the reactor ceased operation in December 1997, the fresh fuel was no longer needed and was securely stored at Pitesti.

Mr. Yamashita, Dr. Biro & Dr. Smirnov (Photo: Mr. Yamashita of the IAEA, Dr. Biro of Romania and Dr. Smirnov of Russia sign the fuel transfer agreement).

The $400,000 fuel removal is being funded by the United States Department of Energy under a cooperative U.S.-Russia-IAEA programme called the Tripartite Initiative, to further the aims of nuclear non-proliferation. The Tripartite Initiative facilitates the return of both fresh and spent fuel from Russian designed research reactors abroad.

U.S. Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham, said it reinforced the U.S. commitment “to work with our partners in the region and take practical steps to improve the physical protection and accounting of nuclear materials and prevent illicit nuclear trafficking”.

Another key aspect of the Agency’s non proliferation work in Romania, is assistance to convert the research reactor at Pitesti from burning HEU to low enriched uranium. The reactor is a U.S. designed 14 megawatt TRIGA reactor – the most powerful TRIGA ever built. The conversion is a three-year Technical Cooperation project involving IAEA experts and the U.S. Department of Energy, under the auspices of the Tripartite Initiative. The U.S. provided $4 million to the IAEA to support the conversion.

The reactor is already partially converted to low enriched uranium, and will be fully converted over the next two and a half years, with the spent HEU fuel returned to the U.S.

As part of the conversion, Agency experts will also help to enhance the general safety of the research reactor and help to devise a plan to safely handle, store and ultimately dispose of the reactor’s spent fuel.

The research reactor is used for training and research on the development, safety and reliability of fuel for Romania’s nuclear power programme and for co-operative research programmes with other nuclear research Institutes in Romania and abroad.

There are currently about 80 research reactors around the world that still have weapons-usable HEU. The Agency has an active record in helping its Member States convert their research reactors from HEU to low enriched uranium. In conjunction with the U.S. “Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors” (RERTR) programme - which has facilitated the conversion of many reactors worldwide - it is helping to reduce and eventually eliminate international commerce in HEU for research reactors.

The Romanian case is unique as the entire operation is under the framework of the IAEA’s Technical Co-operation programme in Europe, and involves the Departments of Safeguards, Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Safety and Security, Management and the Office of Legal Affairs.

This is not the first time the IAEA has helped to transfer HEU fresh fuel back to its country of origin. In August 2002, the IAEA helped co-ordinate the arrangements for and verified the transport of fresh fuel from a research reactor at the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences, in Serbia and Montenegro, to Russia, the country of origin. The reactor at Vinca is shut down and plans for decommissioning are proceeding.