Just over four years ago, the United States and Russia joined with Serbia, the IAEA and other partners to remove nearly 50 kilos of high-enriched uranium - the kind classed as "weapons-grade" - from Serbia´s shutdown research reactor at the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences. Last month, they took another big step to rid the reactor site of old "spent" nuclear fuel that´s posing a serious radiological hazard.
For Serbia, it´s a welcome milestone on a long and winding road. The Vinca research reactor was built in 1958 and started operations using fuel supplied by the former USSR. The reactor was shutdown in 1984, more than two decades ago, but no arrangements were settled then for managing the old Soviet fuel. The breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and later Yugoslavia, exacerbated the picture.
Mr. Aleksandar Popovic, Serbia´s Minister of Science and Environmental Protection, addressed issues in his statement to the IAEA General Conference in September 2006. At Vinca, he said, "assistance of the international community is of paramount importance to resolve outstanding issues, including the removal of the spent nuclear fuel, safe management of radioactive waste and complete decommissioning of the nuclear reactor."
The big step last week was finalizing a multi-million contract to package and ship just over two metric tonnes of spent nuclear fuel, returning it back to Russia. Through its technical cooperation programme, the IAEA concluded a US $4.3 million contract with a Russian consortium and Serbia to start the work, which initially involves preparing about 8000 old fuel elements for shipping casks. Another contract of nearly $5.5 million is being negotiated to cover transport and related tasks.
The contract is one of the biggest involving the IAEA technical cooperation programme, a sign of what lies ahead. The planned operation is no quick or easy job - the fuel contains uranium enriched to varying levels and a good part of it is degrading, making it more dangerous to handle. Michael Durst, the IAEA's special programme manager for Vinca, estimates that about 30% of the fuel could be contaminating the pool where it´s stored underwater.
"The fuel is highly radioactive, it´s leaking, so everything will have to be done remotely." he explains. He says the fuel must be removed from containers using special tools designed for remote control. Once repackaged, the fuel will be put into heavily shielded shipping containers that are specifically licensed for international transport.
"The sooner we get this done, the better for everyone," he says.
The IAEA is leading an international funding drive to obtain the funds urgently needed to complete the job. The first of a series of donor conferences was held 21 September in Vienna, in cooperation with Serbia and more than a dozen countries, including the United States and Russia.
The Vinca project is part of IAEA-supported efforts to upgrade nuclear safety and security at the world´s research reactors. The efforts involve more than 50 countries that collectively house some 350 research reactors, including shutdown facilities, that were once supplied and fueled mainly by the United States and Russia. The IAEA is involved in various initiatives to minimize the reliance on highly enriched uranium and encourage the "take back" of spent fuel to the country of origin. See Story Resources for more information.
At Vinca, IAEA support stretches back over decades. The condition of the reactor´s spent fuel raised safety concerns in the mid-1990s, following the results of Agency fact-finding missions of international experts. Since then, the IAEA´s technical cooperation with Serbia has intensified in areas of safety, and more recently, security. Projects so far have primarily focused on issues related to managing the spent fuel, improving radioactive waste management and decommissioning of the research reactor, an initiative known as "Green Vinca".
Over the coming months, the IAEA is planning a series of donor conferences to solicit additional funding for the work ahead. Initial funding has been provided by the US Department of Energy and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a charitable organization dedicated to reducing the threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.