EC Infuses Serbian Nuclear Relic Cleanup with Critical Donation
Additional $25 Million Needed to Complete Fuel Repatriation for Aging Reactor
The work to remove dangerous spent fuel at the Vinča site is expected to continue in the coming years. Above, one of the hangars used to store materials in previous decades at the site. (Photo: IAEA)
A global effort to remove dangerous spent fuel and decommission a Soviet-designed Serbian reactor on the outskirts of Belgrade has cleared the second of three major funding hurdles.
As part of the Vinča Institute Nuclear Decommissioning (VIND) Programme, the Serbian government and the IAEA recently signed an $8.63 million (EUR 5.46 million) framework agreement with the European Commission to help fund activities related to decommissioning of the aging Cold War-era nuclear reactor. The European donation is the largest in the project´s history, and the infusion of funds is vital to complete a crucial stage of the decommissioning programme.
"Thanks to the impressive contribution by the European Commission, we´re one step closer to completing this important and complex project," said John J. Kelly, the IAEA´s Special Programme Manager for VIND. "With radioactive waste, disused sources, and leaking spent fuel that´s almost 45 years old, the Vinča site presents huge radiological challenges."
The task at Vinča is a mammoth undertaking, and the work is split into three major projects. In the first and most expensive project, old Soviet fuel, some of which is high-enriched uranium (HEU) that could be converted to weapons-grade material, must be safely repackaged and then prepared and repatriated to Russia for reprocessing. Once completed, the VIND spent fuel shipment will comprise the largest shipment of spent research reactor fuel in the European theatre, and extra shipping casks have already been built for the project through funding received from the USA.
In the second VIND project, thousands of containers of unprocessed radioactive waste and disused sealed radioactive sources must be removed from old, degraded storage buildings, conditioned and packaged for safe, secure storage, and placed into new holding facilities. The new buildings are currently under construction and should be ready later this year.
The third VIND project focuses on decommissioning of the research reactor. The reactor´s draft decommissioning plan is almost finished, and plans are in place to begin some decommissioning and dismantlement activities in 2009.
In addition to the radiological legacy at Vinča, security had long been a source of concern. The reactor has been offline since 1984, and much of the dangerous material and facilities were inadequately protected. Thanks to funding and other support activities provided by the Serbian government and the USA for security upgrades and police support, overall site security has been substantially improved over the past two years.
Yet more needs to be done, and time is running out. Along with the EC´s recent donation, an additional $25 million must be raised by 2010 to meet a crucial deadline. The fuel needs to be shipped back to Russia by the end of 2010 or the job falls off the shipping schedule, and potential funding for VIND would also dry up should the 2010 target date be missed.
VIND is the largest one-house programme within the IAEA, and the EC contribution is the largest single contribution ever received for a Technical Cooperation (TC) national project. "The EC support was absolutely crucial to the life of the programme, but we have quite a ways to go to find the remaining $25 million for the project," said Kelly. "The EC contribution serves as a great example and encourages other potential donors to invest in an important and successful project."
Located on the outskirts of Belgrade, the "Institute for Nuclear Sciences Vinča" was set up as a research centre in the former Yugoslavia in the 1950s. A civilian nuclear research reactor loaded with high-enriched uranium was housed at the site. The area was also a central radioactive waste collection and consolidation centre for the former Yugoslavia. The grounds at Vinča accumulated all the former country´s dangerous radioactive waste and other radioactive sources for nearly 45 years, and though the reactor went offline in 1984, the radioactive waste and sources received from around the country continued to pile up. International concern about Vinča mushroomed in the 1990s after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, which led to increased international cooperation to remediate the site and reduce the radiological risk.
Initial seed funding of $5 million to tackle the situation at Vinča was put forth in 2004 by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-governmental organization dedicated to non-proliferation. VIND is part of the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return Programme, a project borne out of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.