The IAEA has helped Latvian authorities remove weapons grade material from a shutdown research reactor in Salaspils, close to the capital Riga.
On 25 May 2005, about three kilograms of fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) was safely airlifted back to Russia, which had originally supplied the fissile material to fuel the Latvian research reactor. Although this amount is less than what is needed to build a nuclear bomb it still requires stringent security arrangements to ensure its safety, and guard against terrorist acts.
Dr. Andris Abramenkovs, Director of BAPA - Latvia´s Hazardous Waste Management State Agency - says the fuel is obsolete since the reactor is under decommissioning.
"Such materials must be stored in safe conditions, with very expensive security arrangements for a very small amount of fuel." The fuel is a legacy from the Soviet past, Dr. Abramenkovs said, and so it must be sent back to the origin country.
The nuclear fuel was airlifted under guard from an airport near Riga to a secure facility, NPO Luch, in Podol´sk, Russia. There, the HEU will be blended down to make it unsuitable for use in a nuclear weapon.
The mission was a joint effort between Latvia, the Russian Federation, the United States, and the IAEA. It was carried out under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, funded by the US. The IAEA facilitated the contracts for the shipment to take place.
IAEA safeguards inspectors were present to monitor the mission. They measured and verified the declared HEU, before it was loaded onto two specialised transportation containers, and sealed. Technical experts from the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Russian Federation also monitored the operation.
The facility in Russia that received the HEU has worked closely with the NNSA to implement security upgrades.
Latvia´s five-megawatt research reactor was shutdown seven years ago and is partly decommissioned. Hopes are to fully decommission the reactor by 2010, if a similar return shipment involving spent fuel can take place in the coming years.
Over the past two years the IAEA has supported operations in Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Bulgaria, Libya, Uzbekistan and the Czech Republic to transfer fresh HEU reactor fuel back to its country of origin.