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Bomb-Grade Nuclear Fuel Retrieved, Imported to U.S.

September 24, 1996|THOMAS W. LIPPMAN | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago a reservoir of bomb-grade enriched uranium was sitting almost unprotected at a nuclear research reactor in Bogota, Colombia, 500 miles over rugged roads from the port where a ship chartered by the Energy Department was to pick up the material.

The Colombian uranium arrived Sunday night at a secure storage site at the Energy Department's Savannah River, S.C., nuclear fuel plant, along with similar shipments from reactors in Chile and several European countries.

Energy Department officials trumpeted the shipments on Monday, especially the extraction of the nuclear fuel from Colombia in an intricate operation involving a Russian cargo jet, as a triumph for the Clinton administration's efforts to control nuclear proliferation.

The shipments marked the resumption of a long-dormant Energy Department program to recover bomb-grade nuclear fuel previously supplied by the United States to reactors around the world. The program, in which the United States helped finance the conversion of the foreign reactors to lower-grade fuel less adaptable to weapons use, was suspended in 1988 because of environmental concerns. It is resuming only now, after a protracted legal battle between the Energy Department and South Carolina, which feared becoming a permanent repository for nuclear waste.

"We want the American public to understand as much as possible that we are not trying to take this fuel back to have the United States be a nuclear garbage dump," said Assistant Energy Secretary Thomas Grumbly. "We have to educate people about the nature of these materials and how dangerous it is for this material to remain at large. This is a nuclear nonproliferation issue."

Reactor operators had been imploring the Energy Department to resume the fuel-retrieval program. They were running out of storage space, they said, and if the United States would not accept the spent fuel they would send it to a facility in Scotland for reprocessing.

The Energy Department chartered two ships to haul the controversial cargo, one from Europe with fuel from reactors in Sweden, France and Switzerland, and one from South America with fuel from Chile and Colombia.

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