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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 25, April 1998

UK To Receive HEU from Georgia

On 21 April, the New York Times reported that the US and UK had arranged for highly-enriched uranium (HEU), stored at a research reactor in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, to be sent to the Dounreay nuclear reactor to be reprocessed. The report was quickly confirmed by the British and American Governments - see Documents and Sources - and the secrecy of the deal defended on the grounds of security. Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament on 22 April that "we could not announce it" due to "fear that rebels [might] take over the civil nuclear reactor." There were reports that both France and Russia had refused to take the materials, which arrived - transported from Georgia by US military transport plane - in the UK on 24 April.

Despite Blair's justification of secrecy, the revelation of the shipment was greeted with incredulous hostility by many in Britain. Greenpeace denounced the move as a haphazard and unsatisfactory approach to a huge problem. In a 22 April statement, Greenpeace argued: "Stocks of weapons-grade material needing reprocessing, processing or storage are immense, and the shipment from Georgia is only a minute fraction of the total... There is a policy vacuum on this issue since there are no international agreements on how to deal with this trade."

Scottish National Party (SNP) spokesperson on Environmental Affairs, Roseanna Cunningham MP, said (22 April) that her "reaction is the same that will come from the majority of the Scottish people - utter outrage that Tony Blair has had the temerity to do this behind people's backs." Friends of the Earth were among many groups expressing doubts about the suitability of the Dounreay plant, stating angrily and graphically on 22 April: "Dounreay leaks like a sieve and some of this material is likely to end up on the beaches around the accident-prone nuclear facility... This will undoubtedly open the radioactive floodgates where Scotland is concerned."

In total, the shipment consisted of 11.22 pounds of materials: 9.46 pounds of HEU and 1.76 pounds of spent nuclear fuel. According to Britain's Atomic Energy Authority, the HEU will be quickly converted into around 1,000 medical 'targets' for use in cancer-diagnosis. Considerably more difficulty is likely to be posed by the spent fuel, as the Director of Dounreay, Ray Nelson, conceded in a BBC interview (22 April):

"About a kilogram of the material that is irradiated we cannot reprocess straight away because we are currently modifying the reprocessing plant. Before we are in a position to reprocess that material we will have to make a safety case and prove to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate that we are ready to go."

Reports: US to remove uranium from Georgia, Associated Press, 21 April; US, Britain to take atom fuel, United Press International, 21 April; Britain defends nuke fuel decision, Associated Press, 22 April; Blair defends taking N-waste from Georgia, Reuters, 22 April; Atomic fuel leaves Georgian reactor, Reuters, 23 April; Nuclear shipment stirs angry reaction, United Press International, 22 April; Nuclear shipment still an issue, United Press International, 23 April; Georgia nuclear material arrives in Scotland, Reuters, 24 April.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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