Nigeria becomes HEU free

10 December 2018

The last known highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Nigeria has been repatriated to China, leaving the African country HEU-free.

Journey's end: the HEU arrives at the China Institute of Atomic Energy on 6 December (Image: CNNC)

More than 1 kilogram of Chinese-origin HEU from the Nigerian Research Reactor-1 (NIRR-1) was returned to China in an operation involving the two countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The process of loading the fuel into a specialised transportation cask, which was then transported by air cargo plane to China, was monitored by IAEA safeguards inspectors and technical experts from China, the Czech Republic, Russia and the USA.

NIRR-1 is a Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR) designed, manufactured and constructed by the China Institute of Atomic Energy, and has a maximum thermal power level of 30kW. Originally fuelled with 90.2% HEU, the reactor is designed for use in universities, hospitals and research institutes, mainly for neutron activation analysis, production of short-lived radioisotopes, education and manpower development. The NIRR-1 reactor is at Ahmadu Bello University's Centre for Energy Research and Training.

China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) in the 1990s helped Ghana, Nigeria and other countries to build "micro-piles" like NIRR-1 to support nuclear science research and personnel training. In 2006, efforts began to convert Chinese-designed MNSRs from HEU to LEU fuel, enriched to less than 20% U235. Ghana's GHARR-1 was the first of five such MNSR reactors outside of China to become eligible for conversion and fuel return to China. Conversion of GHARR-1 to LEU was completed in July 2017, and its HEU fuel was returned to China the following month.

Shipment of LEU fuel to NIRR-1 began in October and the Nigerian reactor reached full-power operation using LEU fuel on 27 November, CNNC said.

US Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty said the removal of the HEU was an example of the international community working together to reduce inventories of weapons-usable nuclear material.

"We applaud Nigeria for its commitment to preventing acts of nuclear terrorism, and we appreciate the strong support of China and the IAEA in executing this important non-proliferation project," she said.

Removal of the last known HEU from Nigeria makes it the 33rd country plus Taiwan to become HEU free. The NNSA said it has removed or confirmed the disposition of more than 6725 kilograms of HEU or plutonium worldwide, helping to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News