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Massive Operation Safely Secures Serbian Nuclear Fuel in Russia

A train prepares to leave Serbia near the start of an 8.000-kilometer delivery of spent nuclear fuel to Russia. (Photo: IAEA)

More than 8 000 highly radioactive nuclear fuel elements arrived safely on 22 December at a secure Russian facility as part of an IAEA-coordinated effort to transfer the material from a Serbian nuclear research reactor.

The fuel repatriation mission used trucks, trains and ships to move the fuel rods - some containing Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) - out of Serbia, where they posed both security and environmental risks. Decades after the Soviet Union had built and fuelled the research reactor at the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences, the condition of the fuel had deteriorated, spurring a coalition of international partners to repackage the fuel elements and ship them back to Russia. Vinca´s first shipment of HEU fresh fuel was returned in 2002, and today´s delivery of spent fuel is the last of the reactor´s inventory.

"This was a very complicated project. We had to involve governments, contractors, and non-governmental organizations," said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. "It was a great success. It was a success story and we are very happy to continue to cooperate with stakeholders to repatriate highly enriched uranium."

Today´s delivery marked the end of a four-week journey from Serbia which started on 18 November, when 16 shipping containers holding the fuel were loaded onto heavy cargo trucks. At 2:30 a.m. on 19 November, the convoy pulled out of Vinca and drove 200 kilometres - along roads closed to all other traffic and protected by thousands of Serbian security personnel - to the Hungarian border where crews moved the containers to a waiting train.

In another early morning departure, the train left Serbia and transited Hungary and Slovenia before arriving on 21 November at the port of Koper, where longshoremen moved the containers once more, this time onto a cargo ship. After a few hours at the dock, the ship embarked for a three-week sail to the Russian port of Murmansk. Once there, containers were loaded back to a train for the journey´s final leg to Mayak. There, Russian experts will recover still-usable uranium for nuclear power plant fuel and store the remaining high-level nuclear waste until it can be safely and securely stored in Russia´s deep geological repository.

Repatriation Missions

The IAEA has, over the years, participated in a variety of repatriation missions in partnership with the U.S.-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative to return HEU fuel to its country of origin and to convert research reactors to use low-enriched uranium fuel.

The United States and Soviet Union were the primary exporters of reactor fuel that was enriched to near nuclear weapon-grade levels, a practice that drew particular notice following the rise of extremist terrorism. Some facilities with HEU fuel do not have adequate security to protect the fuel. Some also suffer from poor maintenance, leading to a growing risk of an environmental accident.

As for Soviet-origin reactor fuel, "we´ve shipped fuel from different places in Europe, such as Hungary, Romania, Poland and the Czech Republic," said IAEA Special Programme Manager John Kelly.

"It´s been shipped back from Libya, shipped back from Vietnam, a little sprinkling from all over the world."

Similarly, the United States welcomed back U.S.-origin fuel, including a batch this year from Turkey.

"With the removal of all remaining highly enriched uranium from Serbia, we are one step closer to achieving U.S. President Barack Obama´s goal of securing vulnerable nuclear material around the world," said Thomas D´Agostino, Administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.

"The elimination of this material reduces the risk that it could be stolen by terrorists and highlights Serbia´s commitment to global nuclear non-proliferation efforts."

The IAEA has played different roles in these missions, sometimes coordinating the entire project as it did with the Vinca material, at other times simply by applying IAEA safeguards to verify the successful transfer.

Vinca Project

The amount of fuel at Vinca was unusually large, and some of it contained 80-percent enriched uranium, approaching the purity needed for nuclear weapons. The urgency of the situation heightened after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, so U.S. officials and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) agreed to fund the removal of fresh HEU fuel from Vinca in 2002. NTI, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO committed to reducing the spectre of nuclear risks, said it hoped its financial contribution would to kickstart fuel removal efforts at Vinca and elsewhere.

"At the time, the U.S. government came to us needing outside funding, and we responded very rapidly," said NTI Chief Executive Officer Sam Nunn.

"They asked us for US $5 million and within 24 hours, we had committed that US $5 million."

That seed money triggered contributions from a variety of governments, turning the Vinca project into the IAEA´s largest technical cooperation endeavour ever, involving about US $55 million to date. Most of the project´s technical assistance to Serbia was overseen by the IAEA Nuclear Energy Department´s Research Reactor Section and the Department of Nuclear Safety. Project management was provided by the Technical Cooperation Department and the Office of Nuclear Security.

Serbian officials have expressed their satisfaction and pride in the project´s success, which serves as a model for other nations.

"We can say that we are happy and we can say that we are a little bit proud that we succeeded in answering all the questions, facing up to all the challenges and successfully finishing the job," said Radojica Pesic, Director of Nuclear Facilities of Serbia.

Last update: 27 Jul 2017

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