Biggest enriched uranium return to date

11 January 2007

Some 326 kg of enriched uranium has been returned to Russia from eastern Germany. The material will be blended down into power reactor fuel.

The unused material, fresh fuel intended for the 10 MWt RFR research reactor at Forschungszentrum Rossendorf in Dresden, was originally supplied by the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. The reactor was shut down shortly after the 1990 reunification of Germany.

Some 268 kg of the 326 kg of nuclear fuel is classified at highly-enriched uranium (HEU), enriched to as much as 36%, the other 58 kg is low-enriched (LEU). HEU is generally taken to be over 20% enriched while LEU is under 5%. Materials enriched to over 80% are considered to be usable in nuclear weapons, but some research reactors were designed to use fuel enriched to up to 93%.

The nuclear fuel, which is only lightly radioactive, has been transported by air and road to the a reprocessing facility at Podolsk, near to Moscow. There it will be mixed with lower grade uranium stocks to produce LEU nuclear fuel suitable for use in civilian power reactors.

About 330 officers accompanied the transports, which took a diversion to avoid a group of protesters. Udo Herwig, director of the Rossendorf centre, said precautions had been taken to protect the fuel even in the case of aircraft crash. The cost of the trasportation has been met by the German state of Saxony.

As well as German and Russian authorities, the international organisations behind the movement included the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US National Nuclear Security Agency, who were working under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), a 2004 agreement between the USA and Russia.

"The security of HEU is of particular concern due to the technical feasilbility of constructing a crude nuclear explosive device from HEU," said Arnaud Atger, the IAEA's project manager for such returns.

It is GTRI's purpose to reduce the amount of HEU in existence and reduce the number of locations it is stored. A high priority in that mission is to speed the return of Soviet HEU still held in former Soviet states and client countries, as well as that supplied by the USA to its allies. At the same time, research reactors that formerly used HEU are being adapted to use LEU under both GTRI and the USA's pre-existing Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program.

GTRI has overseen the return of 81 kg of American-origin HEU from Argentina, Austria, Germany, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden while about 433 kg of Russian-origin HEU has been returned from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Libya, Poland, Serbia and Uzbekistan, with this German shipment the biggest yet. By 2013 GTRI aims to have transfered 1781 kg of Russian-origin HEU.