August 24, 2002
US and Russia in raid to snatch uranium
By Michael Evans, Defence Editor
A TEAM of Americans and Russians have removed more than 100lb of highly enriched uranium from a nuclear research facility in Yugoslavia in a secret operation to prevent it being seized by terrorists.
The dawn “raid” on the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade, protected by Yugoslav Army helicopters and 1,200 heavily armed troops, was the first joint effort by the US and Russia to retrieve weapons-grade nuclear material supplied by Moscow to research centres around the world. Under a Moscow-Washington agreement, America will help to finance a programme to retrieve all the research uranium from 17 countries formerly allied with the Soviet Union.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the discovery in Afghanistan of al-Qaeda plans to develop crude nuclear devices, the programme became a priority. A recent report by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Washington said that there were 345 operating or idle research reactors in 58 countries that had highly enriched uranium that could be converted for use in a weapon by terrorists.
Matthew Bunn, one of the authors, said security at the research facilities ranged from “excellent to appalling”. He named the 16 other countries with Russian nuclear fuel as North Korea, China, Libya, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Romania, Ukraine, Belarus, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Syria, Vietnam, Latvia and Bulgaria.
The 48.1kg of highly enriched uranium — enough for at least two bombs — had been kept at the Vinca Institute since the 1970s. It was put in sealed containers and loaded into a lorry. Three lorries, two of them decoys, left with military escorts for Belgrade’s international airport.
The fuel, in the form of 5,000 rods of highly enriched uranium, was flown out of Belgrade in a Russian transport aircraft to Dimitrovgrad, southeast of Moscow, where it will be reprocessed, converting the 80 per cent enriched uranium into material that cannot be used in a bomb. The operation had been planned for a year. The media tycoon Ted Turner funded the operation with a £3.3 million donation from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-proliferation foundation of which he is co-chairman.
Approval required a vote of the Yugoslav parliament, which was sworn to secrecy because of the fear that terrorists might try to hijack the fuel. Half Belgrade was closed off while the fuel was removed. The operation took 17 hours.
The next operation will be at a research facility in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, after the Government signed an agreement with Washington and Moscow. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency was involved in the removal negotiations.
There had been concerns that the plan had leaked out, because several Yugoslav scientists involved in research work at the Vinca Institute had written to a Belgrade newspaper complaining that a “national treasure” was to be removed.
The IAEA has written to all the recipient countries to ask if they would co-operate in a “take-back” programme.