Sensitive Nuclear Material Removed From Poland

IAEA inspectors monitor the operation. (Photo: IAEA)

In a mission completed 9 August 2006, the IAEA helped Polish authorities to remove close to 40kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from a nuclear research reactor facility at Otwock-Swierk near the capital of Warsaw.

The HEU was safely airlifted back to Russia, which had originally supplied it to fuel Poland´s research reactors. The two-day mission was a joint effort between the United States, Poland, Russia, and the IAEA.

Both IAEA safeguards inspectors and technical experts from the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) were present to monitor loading the fuel into canisters. Under armed guard, it was then airlifted by cargo plane from Warsaw to Ulyanovsk, in an early morning operation that safely returned the nuclear fuel to a secure facility close to Dimitrovgrad. The Russian facility will down-blend the fissile material to low enriched uranium that can not be used to make a bomb.

The fuel removal was funded by the United States, through an IAEA technical cooperation project that conducted the work needed to make the shipment a reality. It is part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) to identify, secure and recover high-risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world.

IAEA Project Manager, Mr. Arnaud Atger, said the operation was "another critical step towards enhancing the security of fissile material, by eliminating stockpiles of HEU". "Poland´s cooperation and commitment was key to this joint non-proliferation effort," he said.

Dr. Igor Bolshinsky, NNSA Project Manager, said it was "another successful mission". "The NNSA and IAEA partnership is valuable in securing nuclear material and I look forward to continuing our non-proliferation efforts together."

Altogether some 195 kg of HEU of Russian origin has been returned to Russia from foreign research reactors built under Soviet projects.

The IAEA is also working with Poland to convert its powerful research reactor, called MARIA, from HEU to using LEU fuel, which is less of a proliferation risk. The reactor was named after the famous Polish-born scientist, Marie Curie, whose discovery of radium paved the way for nuclear physics and cancer therapy.

The MARIA reactor is used to produce isotopes for medical treatment and diagnoses, and to test power reactor fuel and conduct other research.

"Poland serves as a model of cooperation for other eligible countries, to encourage them to ship back their remaining inventories of fresh HEU fuel and convert their research reactors to proliferation resistant LEU," Mr. Atger said.

Deputy Director of the Polish Institute for Atomic Energy, Mr. Grzegorz Krzysztoszek, said: "The value of converting the research reactor to LEU is in part because the cost of HEU is high, and its availability limited, but more importantly, it is a safer alternative to HEU."

This Polish shipment comes two weeks after the completion of a similar operation in Libya. Over the past three years, the IAEA has helped to repatriate HEU from Libya, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Uzbekistan, Latvia and the Czech Republic 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 to LEU fuel. In conjunction with a US programme, the Agency is working to reduce and eventually eliminate international commerce in HEU for research reactors.

As part of its broader efforts, the IAEA assists Member States to upgrade physical security and improve overall safety at research reactors. A particular focus is on ageing or shut-down reactors and their spent fuel storage facilities.

Last update: 11 November 2014