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Uzbekistan Sends Spent Nuclear Fuel to Russia

A U.N. agency oversees a high-security operation to transport material that contains enough uranium to produce at least two bombs.

April 21, 2006|From the Associated Press

VIENNA — Spent nuclear fuel containing enough weapons-grade uranium to produce at least two bombs was safely returned to Russia from Uzbekistan this week in a high-security and classified operation, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency disclosed Thursday.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said the operation, which was completed Wednesday after six years of planning, was the first time since the breakup of the former Soviet Union that fuel used in a nuclear research reactor was returned to Russia.

The material -- nearly 139 pounds of spent highly enriched uranium -- was transported over 16 days in four high-security shipments to Russia's main nuclear waste processing plant in Mayak, the IAEA said. It said agency safeguard inspectors "monitored and verified" the packing of the fuel.

The shipments were a joint operation by the IAEA, Kazakhstan, Russia, the United States and Uzbekistan as part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, an effort to ensure that high-risk nuclear and radiological materials do not fall into the wrong hands.

The Uzbek fuel was particularly worrisome because it had lost much of its initial radioactivity, making it easier for terrorists or others to handle, the agency said in a statement.

"There was particular concern about the Uzbek spent fuel, given its significant quantity and that it was no longer 'self-protecting,' " said Pablo Adelfang, the IAEA's research reactor coordinator. "This means that the fuel has lost its high radioactivity. In other words, it would no longer injure anyone who handled it and would not deter potential thieves."

The return of the material to Russia, where it will be processed so it cannot be used in an atomic weapon, "will contribute to the security of both Uzbekistan and the international community," Adelfang said.

The Mayak plant, near the Ural Mountains city of Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow, produced nuclear weapons during the Soviet era and now processes most of Russia's nuclear waste.

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