Nuclear fuel to be moved

Thursday, July 24, 2008

300 tons of spent fuel in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan's military forces this summer held a training exercise to thwart a fake terrorist assault on a Soviet-built nuclear facility near Almaty, the country's former capital located on its southeastern border.

In the exercise, a reactor was the simulated target of terrorists trying to steal some of the deadliest nuclear material ever made. It came, by no coincidence, as U.S. and Kazakh officials put the finishing touches on a plan to move 300 tons of used nuclear fuel from a decommissioned Soviet nuclear reactor near the port city of Aktau on the Caspian Sea not far from Iran.

Starting early next year, the spent fuel will be transported from the Aktau-based facility via railway cars in five shipments of 60 tons each. The fuel will be stored in a permanent inland storage site at the Baikal-1 facility at Semipalatinsk, a former Soviet nuclear testing site near Kazakhstan's remote northeastern border with Russia.

If reprocessed, the fuel would yield about 3 tons of pure plutonium.

"This material is like fruit from the forbidden tree," Erlan A. Idrissov, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Times. "So it only makes sense to keep it as secure as possible."

Plans to move the fuel by rail across the steppes of central Asia go back more than a decade, when officials were scrambling to contain the black-market dispersal of the former Soviet Union's atomic arsenal.

In 1999, the Kazakh government signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to shut down and secure the Aktau-based BN-350 reactor, a commercial-scale "breeder reactor" originally loaded with highly enriched uranium, a potential fuel for nuclear weapons.

Ex-officials and experts interviewed for this story said that security planners saw Iran's proximity to the reactor as a possible security threat.

"It is especially pure and very attractive for making nuclear bombs," said Laura Holgate, a nuclear expert at the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank in Washington.

Matthew Bunn, a professor at Harvard University's Belfer Center, which analyzes proliferation issues, estimates that the plutonium inside was more than 97 percent pure. By comparison, the fuel used by the U.S. in its arsenal is about 90 percent pure.

"It is better [quality] than the plutonium used in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile," Mr. Bunn said.

Since it takes 10 to 15 pounds of plutonium to make a bomb, the Aktau reactor fuel contained enough for about 400 atomic bombs similar to one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in the final days of World War II.

At the time, officials in the Clinton administration cited Iran's proximity to the reactor as a reason for moving the fuel - concerns that deepened after Tehran asked to open a consulate in Aktau, a city with scant economic or political clout.

Mr. Idrissov, the Kazakh ambassador, said the security concerns over Tehran's intentions were probably overblown.

"The plan [to open an Iranian consulate] never materialized," Mr. Idrissov said, dismissing the idea that Tehran had interest in getting close to the Aktau-based reactor.

"Iran could simply have had the foresight to see that Aktau was going to become commercially important," he said.

Indeed, Aktau has become a major hub for Kazakhstan's oil and gas industry.

Although many of the details remain classified, the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration has worked with the Kazakh government and helped fund major upgrades at both ends to make the shipment possible.

Some nuclear experts regard the effort as an anachronism. They dismiss the idea that terrorists would hijack a heavily guarded train, steal a 60-ton cask and get it to a reprocessing factory with the giant vats of acid needed to extract the plutonium.

Leonard Spector, a former Energy Department official who was responsible for advancing the program in the 1990s, dismissed the idea of an attack orchestrated by the Iranian government. But he said threats still exist.

"You have elements in Iran that aren't necessarily well supervised, and you can't dismiss that they could act on their own," he said.

Even so, Mr. Spector said security at the Aktau-based facility is substantial.

"It's not like situations elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, where we had to worry about one person sneaking out discs of weapons grade uranium in his pocket," he said.

Ms. Holgate, of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said that some terrorists might be willing to die to get the material.

"One question is how self-protecting the material is," she said. "Does it have so much radiation that a terrorist trying to process it would die from a massive radiation dose? Even if that were the case, a terrorist may not care that he or she dies."

In the 1990s, nuclear proliferation experts were divided on what to do with the fuel. Some favored leaving the material in the protected facilities at Aktau, Mr. Spector said.

Transferring the material is an expensive, dangerous venture requiring infrastructure upgrades and possibly garnering only incremental security gains, he said.

"We didn't take the decision regarding moving the fuel lightly," Mr. Spector said.

He said the decision to move the fuel may also have been political for Kazakhstan, a country he described as a faithful U.S. partner in nonproliferation efforts.

Harvard's Mr. Bunn agreed.

"The main reason this is being done is because years ago the U.S. government signed an agreement with the Kazakhs that committed the U.S. government to do this," Mr. Bunn said.

Moving the fuel, he said, has "some good housekeeping merit. But then the question is whether that virtue is worth the current cost estimate for the program."

U.S. officials said the Kazakh government is paying for the transportation costs, roughly calculated to be up to $30 million. However, the Kazakh Embassy did not confirm those numbers.

The U.S. government has funded extensive upgrades to facilities in both Aktau and Semipalatinsk.

In an e-mail response to questions submitted by The Times, officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) provided details of the operation, saying the plan was motivated by security needs - namely a desire to move the material out of a population center and to protect a primary oil port from potential nuclear sabotage.

But the officials could not immediately say how much the U.S. government has spent.

Mr. Bunn of Harvard, who reviewed federal budget documents, said the total cost of canning, curing and shipping the spent fuel runs close to $175 million.

A Government Accountability Office official said the agency has yet to produce a report on the program.

"We cover many nuclear nonproliferation programs but haven't focused on this project," said Gene Aloise, director of GAO's nuclear nonproliferation work. "Perhaps this article will spark some interest."

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