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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 67, October - November 2002

News Review

HEU Removed from Serbia as Nuclear Terrorism Fears Remain High

On August 22, a substantial amount of weapons-grade uranium was removed from a nuclear reactor in Serbia to a site in Russia. Details of the operation were provided by the US State Department on August 23:

"In an unprecedented and highly successful cooperative project, officials from the United States, the Republic of Serbia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Russian Federation successfully transferred yesterday a quantity of highly-enriched uranium [HEU] from the Vinca nuclear reactor near Belgrade - enough for two nuclear weapons - to a facility in the Russian Federation where it will be blended down for use as a conventional nuclear fuel. ... The transfer of 48 kg of highly-enriched uranium in about 5000 rods took place under full International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and with the outstanding cooperation of Serb and Yugoslav officials. The United States congratulates these governments for their clear understanding of the risks associated with continued storage of this material at the now-closed Vinca nuclear research reactor facility and their assistance in packing, transportation and security. The uranium, provided to Yugoslavia by the former Soviet Union, has safely arrived at the Ulyanovsk nuclear processing plant in the Russian Federation. The United States has provided nearly $3 million in funding for this project. About $2 million came from the State Department's Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Fund for packing, transportation and security. The Department of Energy provided funds and technical expertise associated with blending down the materials. Key to the project's success was a donation of $5 million from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-governmental organisation foundation co-chaired by Ted Turner and [former] Senator Sam Nunn. NTI funds address radiological hazards and were essential to the successful transfer. Projects of this kind require specialised training and experience. The US anticipates that Yugoslav scientists and technicians that are taking part in this project have gained useful experience that will enable them to participate in similar projects in the future."

Participants in the project reacted with understandable relief, tempered by a realisation of the scale of the task ahead. According to Dragan Domazet, Serbia's Minister of Technology, Science and Development (August 23): "This project is the start of an operation to clear out Vinca of used and unused nuclear fuel as well as hazardous radioactive waste". A Russian Atomic Energy Ministry statement (August 23) described Project Vinca as "a splendid example" of US-Russian non-proliferation cooperation, noting that "thus...another potential threat of terrorism or nuclear threat [has] been eliminated". The same day, US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called the operation "a model of how governments, the international community, and the private sector can work together to reduce the threat posed by these materials to the citizens of the world", while Sam Nunn reflected that "highly-enriched uranium is the raw material for catastrophic terrorism, and it requires the same security discipline that we currently apply to nuclear weapons".

Writing in the Los Angeles Times on August 29, US non-proliferation expert and former White House adviser Matthew Bunn called the successful transfer of material from Vinca a "first step" on a frighteningly long road: "Today, plutonium and HEU...are in hundreds of facilities, in scores of countries. Because obtaining such materials is the hardest part of making a nuclear bomb, vulnerable nuclear material anywhere is a threat to everyone everywhere. Yet there are no binding global nuclear safety standards, and the security for these materials ranges from excellent to appalling. Vinca was so impoverished it had dead rats floating in its spent fuel pool. There are more than 300 civilian facilities like Vinca round the world... Many of these sites do not have enough HEU to pose a serious security threat. But there are others like Vinca: poorly secured and with enough material for a nuclear bomb." Bunn argued: "Rather than trying to beef up security everywhere, we need a focused 'global clean-out' program targeted on getting rid of bomb material from as many sites as possible around the world and then effectively securing the sites that remain. The surest form of prevention is to ensure there is no bomb material to steal."

Short of development or acquisition of a nuclear bomb, the risk looms of terrorist 'dirty bombs' - radiological weapons spreading dangerous radioactive material in a conventional explosion. Addressing the IAEA General Conference in Vienna on September 16, Secretary Abraham called for an international meeting to discuss the dirty bomb threat:

"While safeguarding weapons usable materials is and should be the highest priority of this organization, it is also important for all of us in the IAEA to act as partners to reduce the threat of other radioactive nuclear materials that could be used for dirty bombs. To that end, I call on all states to join the United States in working with the IAEA to address the threat posed by the potential misuse of radiological materials. I am proposing an international conference to discuss how the international community can build on the tripartite initiative launched by the United States, Russia, and the IAEA and extend our efforts globally. The IAEA has the technical expertise to help states respond appropriately to this problem. We must work together to develop appropriate national standards for accounting for and tracking radiological materials. The IAEA can help member states identify resources needed to safely dispose of unneeded radiological materials, serve as a clearinghouse for critical information, and make invaluable experience available to member states, as they address this concern. Addressing the threats posed by radiological dispersal devices cannot be put off to be handled later. The detailed instructions on how to make dirty bombs found in al Qaeda's caves make horrifyingly clear our need to have a firm plan to reduce the vulnerability of the most dangerous of these materials to acquisition by those seeking to use them as weapons of terror."

Progress in the "tripartite", or Trilateral, initiative mentioned by Secretary Abraham was summarised in a joint statement released at the start of the General Conference: "Russian Federation Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev, United States Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei met in Vienna on 16 September 2002 to review the status of the Trilateral Initiative and agree on its future direction. The parties concluded that the task entrusted to the Trilateral Initiative Working Group in 1996 has been fulfilled. The work completed has demonstrated practical approaches for IAEA verification of weapon-origin fissile material designated as released from defence programmes in classified forms or at certain sensitive facilities. The work included the examination of technical, legal and financial issues associated with such verification. The removal of weapon-origin fissile material from defence programmes of the Russian Federation and the United States is in furtherance of the commitment to disarmament steps undertaken by the two States pursuant to Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. IAEA verification of the materials declared excess to nuclear weapons programmes and made subject to this Initiative would build international confidence that this material will never again be used in nuclear weapons. Minister Rumyantsev, Secretary Abraham and Director General ElBaradei recognized the value of the groundbreaking work completed over the last six years. Building on the work completed, they directed the technical experts to begin without delay discussions on future possible cooperation within the trilateral format. Minister Rumyantsev, Secretary Abraham and Director General ElBaradei agreed that the Principals would meet again in September 2003 to review progress within the trilateral format."

Also on September 16, Secretary Abraham and Minister Rumyantsev issued a statement announcing encouraging developments in efforts to address the threat of nuclear proliferation and terrorism:

"In their May 2002 Summit in Moscow, the President of the United States of America George W. Bush and the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin agreed to establish a joint experts group to work out proposals on near- and long-term, bilateral and multilateral means to reduce inventories of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The United States and Russia recognize their common interest in guaranteeing the irreversibility of nuclear disarmament, strengthening non-proliferation, and combating terrorism by accelerating the disposition of excess nuclear weapon materials. Ambassador Linton Brooks [Acting Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)] and First Deputy Minister Mikhail Solonin co-chaired the Expert Group on Accelerated Nuclear Material Disposition. We highly appreciate the results of the Expert Group. We are pleased with the accelerated pace the group maintained, finishing the report three months earlier than their initial deadline. The report will be forwarded to Presidents George W. Bush and V.V. Putin. The Expert Group identified several areas where joint cooperation could lead to reduction of HEU over-and-above commitments already in place under existing agreements. These include:

1. Creation of a strategic reserve in the United States from Russian HEU downblended into Low Enriched Uranium (LEU);

2. Increase in the rate and quantity of HEU converted to LEU under the Nuclear Material Consolidation and Conversion Project;

3. Use of LEU downblended from Russian HEU to fuel reactors in Western countries;

4. Use of Russian HEU to fuel selected United States research reactors, until cores are converted to LEU; and

5. In parallel, work on accelerated development of LEU fuel for both Soviet-designed and United States-designed research reactors.

The Expert Group also identified potential new areas of near-term cooperation for weapon plutonium disposition. These include:

1. Fabrication of additional mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for use in Russian reactors, utilizing additional weapons-grade plutonium under the 2000 Agreement, and

2. A variation of this scenario that would provide for the possible use of some MOX fuel in Russia and for leasing or exporting of the remainder for use in other countries.

The Expert Group will continue to study additional options that could be relevant in the future, taking into account their technical feasibility, impacts on commercial nuclear fuel market industries and required financial resources."

Addressing a conference on 'International Approaches to Nuclear and Radiological Security' in Leeds, UK, on September 30, US Undersecretary of State John Bolton pointed to "a special lesson of last September 11: the risk that arises from the confluence of two factors". He explained: "These two factors are the ability of terrorists to plan and stage attacks on the very centres of our societies, and the very wide availability of radioactive sources that could make the consequences of an attack more severe." Bolton added: "Because of the very large number of states that use radioactive sources of significance, a common set of ground rules is important so that all exporters, recipients and users of sealed sources have a mutually understood basis for ensuring the safety and security of these sources. The IAEA's Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources seeks to prevent the loss or unauthorised access to radioactive sources through the establishment of an effective system of regulatory control from the production of radioactive sources to their final disposal. It also calls for a system to restore such control if a source has been lost or stolen. The Code was initially approved in 2000 and has been updated since that time. In August, the Code was revised to address a number of important security concerns that were brought about by the September 11 attacks."

Speaking on the anniversary of those attacks, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei issued a statement comprehensively reviewing the anti-terrorism initiatives undertaken by his organisation:

"In the wake of the terrorist attacks, member states of the IAEA, meeting in the Agency's General Conference, adopted a resolution requesting that IAEA Director General initiate a thorough review of the Agency's activities and programmes relevant to preventing acts of terrorism... The Agency moved rapidly to respond. It devised and is presently implementing an integrated action plan which includes enhanced and new activities to upgrade nuclear security worldwide and to combat nuclear terrorism. The plan covers eight areas: (1) physical protection of nuclear material and nuclear facilities; (2) detection of malicious activities (such as illicit trafficking); (3) strengthening of state systems for nuclear material accountancy and control; (4) security of radioactive sources; (5) the assessment of safety and security related vulnerabilities at nuclear facilities; (6) response to malicious acts or threats thereof; (7) the adherence to international agreements and guidelines; and (8) coordination and information management for nuclear security related matters. ... Terrorism is a global threat and the response to it must be global in nature. The effectiveness of anti-terrorist measures will be determined by the weakest link in the system. It must be recognised that there are gaps or vulnerabilities in the states' records of nuclear materials and facilities. They need to be addressed and certain measures need to be taken to enhance nuclear security. The world nuclear community has to make a serious commitment to provide the necessary funds to the IAEA to fully implement the activities identified and underway in the plan of action to combat nuclear terrorism."

Related material on Acronym website:

Reports: Serbia sends nuclear fuel to Russia, Associated Press, August 22; Russian atomic energy ministry hails operation to extract nuclear fuel from Yugoslavia as a prime example of US-Russian cooperation, Associated Press, August 23; Nuclear threat remains in Serbia despite US-financed shipment of fuel to Russia, Associated Press, August 23; Secretary Abraham commends international cooperation in successful mission to remove Belgrade uranium, US Department of Energy Press Release N-02-169, August 23; Text - State Department on uranium transfer from Balkans to Russia, Washington File, August 23; NTI commits $5 million to help secure vulnerable nuclear weapons material, NTI Press Release (http://www.nti.org), August 23; A nuclear weapon just waiting to happen, by Matthew Bunn, Los Angeles Times, August 29; Comment on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States of America, by Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA website (http://www.iaea.org), September 11; Abraham urges 'dirty bomb' action, Associated Press, September 16; Energy Secretary Abraham calls for International Conference to counter the threat of 'dirty bombs', US Energy Department Press Release PR-02-186, September 16; IAEA verification of weapon-origin fissile material in the Russian Federation and United States, IAEA Press Release PR 2002/13, September 16; Joint Statement, Secretary Abraham and Minister Rumyantsev, September 16, 2002, US Energy Department text; Transcript - State's Bolton warns of need to secure radioactive substances, Washington File, October 2.

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