DA LAT, VIETNAM — About 10 pounds of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for a nuclear bomb, was removed Saturday from a research reactor in Vietnam, part of a joint U.S.-Russian program to keep such material out of the hands of international terrorists.
The secret operation began Tuesday, when a U.S. team led by officials from the National Nuclear Security Administration arrived at the research reactor here in Da Lat, about 150 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.
Under a complex agreement, Vietnam gave up 35 unused fuel rods containing the bomb-grade material in exchange for new fuel rods from Russia made with low-enriched uranium that would allow the reactor to continue operating.
Commercial power plants and research reactors can operate on uranium enriched to low levels, but that fuel is useless for nuclear weapons.
The Da Lat reactor was built under the Eisenhower administration's Atoms for Peace program and went into service in 1963. In the closing days of the Vietnam War, U.S. officials hastily shut down the reactor and removed unused fuel at the site. But the reactor was restarted in the 1980s with Russian assistance and a new load of fuel.
The end of the Cold War and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks created a sense of urgency in the United States and Russia to consolidate and better protect highly enriched uranium. The two nations signed an agreement 2 1/2 years ago to cooperate more closely to stop nuclear proliferation.
The Vietnam mission was set in motion when President Bush signed a statement with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet in Hanoi in November, pledging to increase nonproliferation cooperation and specifically to replace the fuel at the Da Lat reactor.
Andrew Bieniawski, head of a U.S. team that oversaw the transfer, said it was the 13th mission to remove highly enriched uranium from reactor sites that had been supplied by the Soviet Union.
"We are going after the most vulnerable material," said Bieniawski, assistant deputy administrator for the Office of Global Threat Reduction.
So far, the United States has relocated or secured more than half of the potential fissile material that could be used to make a bomb, Bieniawski said.
The operation was overseen by International Atomic Energy Agency inspector Syed N. Syed Hussin Shabuddin, who verified the serial numbers of all the fuel rods and that they contained highly enriched uranium.
The 35 fuel rods removed from the Da Lat reactor were then packaged in two heavy steel shipping casks and shipped out by military convoy through the lush Central Highlands to a nearby airport, where they were loaded onto a Vietnamese military helicopter.
The material was flown to Ho Chi Minh City, where it was transferred to a Russian cargo plane, which took the fuel rods to Dimitrovgrad, Russia.
There, a nuclear fuel processing plant will convert the material to low-enriched uranium for future use in nuclear power plants.