Bombs Grade "Spent" Nuclear Material Removed From Uzbekistan

(Credit: Institute of Nuclear Physics, Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences.)

Spent nuclear fuel containing enough uranium to produce 2.5 nuclear weapons has been safely returned to Russia from Uzbekistan in a classified mission completed on 19 April 2006.

It is the first time that fuel used in a nuclear research reactor - referred to as "spent" - has been repatriated to Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Under tight security, 63 kilograms of spent highly enriched uranium (HEU) was transported to Mayak in Russia, in four separate shipments. IAEA safeguards inspectors monitored and verified the packing of the fuel for transport over the course of 16 days.

The secret operation, six years in the planning, was a joint undertaking of the IAEA, the United States, Uzbekistan, Russia and Kazakhstan as part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI). The aim of the GTRI is to identify, secure and recover high-risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world.

"There was particular concern about the Uzbek spent fuel given its significant quantity and that it was no longer 'self protecting'," the IAEA´s Crosscutting Co-ordinator for Research Reactors, Mr. Pablo Adelfang, said. "This means that the fuel has lost its high radioactivity. In other words, it would no longer injure anyone who handled it for a short period of time, and therefore would not deter potential thieves," Mr. Adelfang said.

"The shipment is an important step to reduce stockpiles of high-risk, vulnerable nuclear materials. Russia, the US, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan should be applauded for their successful cooperation. It will contribute to the security of both Uzbekistan and the international community," he added.

In Russia, the fuel will be processed so that it can not be used for atomic bombs.

Russia originally supplied the nuclear fuel to Uzbekistan for use in its 10 megawatt research reactor. Located at the Institute of Nuclear Physics of Uzbekistan, 30 km from Tashkent, the reactor is currently used for research and to produce isotopes for medical purposes.

The IAEA is now helping to convert the reactor to run on fuel that can not be used to make a nuclear weapon. The Agency is also developing lessons learned from this shipment to provide a basis for guidelines for future spent fuel shipments. "It is no small undertaking to safely and securely repatriate the spent fuel. It invokes many technical, economic and legal issues which must be addressed before the shipment is successfully executed," Mr. Adelfang said.

This latest shipment follows the successful repatriation of nearly 11 kilograms of fresh highly enriched uranium from the Uzbek reactor in 2004. Over the past three years the IAEA has supported similar operations in other countries including Libya, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, Latvia and the Czech Republic to transfer HEU reactor fuel back to its country of origin.

More than 100 research reactors around the world still run on weapons-grade HEU. The Agency is working with its Member States to convert their research reactors from HEU to using proliferation-resistant lower enriched fuel. International and national efforts have resulted in the full conversion of 33 research reactors.

In conjunction with the US-initiated GTRI and other programmes, the IAEA is working to reduce and eventually eliminate international commerce in HEU for use in research reactors or critical assemblies. As part of its efforts, the IAEA also assists Member States to upgrade physical security and improve overall safety of their research reactors. A particular focus is on ageing or shut down reactors and their spent fuel storage facilities.

Last update: 11 November 2014