As recently announced by the US, Russian and Czech governments, a recent shipment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) research reactor fuel from the Czech Republic completed the removal of all HEU from the country to the Russian Federation, the country of origin. The shipment was the sixth and last removal operation of over 180 kilograms of HEU from the country under the auspices of the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return (RRRFR) Programme since its launch in 2002. As a result of this, the Czech Republic is now a HEU-free country.
The nuclear fuel was provided to then-Czechoslovakia by the then-USSR to produce radioisotopes for medicine, industrial and research purposes. A significant part of the fuel was irradiated in in the research reactor, that was classified as spent fuel and the Czech Republic had no use for it while the rest remained in stock as fresh fuel.
Spent HEU is highly radioactive and if reprocessed, can be recycled for civilian as well as military purposes. Thus, it poses both a proliferation and a security risk. Russia, as the country that originally supplied the HEU, reprocesses the spent fuel for further civilian use.
The seeds for the RRRFR programme were sown at the IAEA General Conference in September 1999 when the U.S. announced it was prepared to work with Russia and the IAEA to manage and dispose of Russian-origin HEU research reactor fuel remaining in a number of countries. Then the IAEA took the initiative in October 2000 by calling for the elimination of HEU fuel from ex-Soviet research reactors. Covering 20 research reactors in 14 countries, the RRRFR programme was launched in 2002. The programme, as well as the IAEA's activities supporting HEU fuel take back programmes expanded significantly in 2004 when the U.S. launched its Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI).
The IAEA had been very active in the removal of HEU from the Czech Republic. Two fresh HEU removals were completed from the research reactor in Rez in 2004 and 2010, while one from the Czech Technical University in Prague in 2005. The IAEA was one of the contracting parties for these three shipments and ensured a broad range of technical advisory and organisational support.
In the case of shipping spent nuclear fuel from research reactors, the challenge was to increase the transport ability and develop improved cask loading technology to meet the needs of the different research reactors and spent fuel conditions. An IAEA Technical Cooperation project was launched to procure enough casks to meet the foreseen shipment needs. The IAEA procured 10 containers, while the Czech Nuclear Research Institute (NRI) in Rez ordered another six. Thanks to this, the RRRFR Programme has now 16 VPVR/M casks that can be used both for transport as well as for storage if needed. Since 2007, the containers were used for 11 shipment operations and altogether more than 760 kilograms of HEU were removed.
The IAEA has for decades been an active partner in international efforts to minimize and eventually eliminate the use of HEU. A significant portion of this support involves the conversion of research reactors from HEU to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel and radioisotope production targets.