Monday, July 6, 2009

The long, hard road to nuclear safety

An inside look at a global imperative: keeping enriched uranium from terrorists

PITESTI, Romania - Two stories underground, in a concrete room with a heavy steel door, gloved technicians wearing smocks carefully measure and weigh the charcoal-gray pellets, 182 in all. They are among the most dangerous materials in the world: highly enriched uranium, the main ingredient for a nuclear bomb.

This supply alone, provided to the Institute for Nuclear Research here in 1990 by the then-Soviet Union, is enough to make a bomb with the explosive power to level a major city.

The pellets, classified as “fresh’’ because they have not been used as fuel in a reactor, are compact - each about the size of a shotgun shell - and do not emit much radiation in this form. This makes them a particular nightmare for officials who worry they could be readily stolen and transported by terrorists.

“You can pick it up and put it in your pocket,’’ says Andrew Bieniawski, assistant deputy administrator of the US National Nuclear Security Administration.

And so they will be carefully crated and escorted in the predawn hours by heavily armed military police to a waiting cargo plane that will whisk them to Russia, where they will be turned into a safer form of low enriched uranium. This painstaking and costly process marked the first step in an aggressive new effort by the Obama administration to secure vulnerable nuclear material around the world.

President Obama has said that preventing terrorists from acquiring a nuclear weapon is his top national security priority. This week, senior administration officials said, Obama will sign a joint declaration with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow setting forth a framework to complete the removal of highly enriched uranium from 15 other countries within four years.

That goal has taken on new urgency recently with intelligence assessments concluding that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have made obtaining nuclear material a central goal.

“Unless the world acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,’’ the US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism said in a report.

The Romania operation, which a Globe reporter and photographer were given exclusive permission to chronicle, was the first to transport by air these highly enriched uranium stocks, both the “fresh’’ pellets and a stockpile of highly radioactive spent fuel - pellets that have been fed through a reactor as fuel.

By removing all of its highly enriched uranium, the Romania operation is seen as a model for other countries that worry about the risks in giving up their nuclear materials.

To the Romanian officials involved, the removal will improve the country’s security, and security of the world as well.

“We feel relaxed now,’’ says Marin Ciocanescu, the deputy director for nuclear safety at the Institute for Nuclear Research, after watching some material being prepared for removal. “Highly enriched uranium means you have a problem.’’

Cold War remnants
The National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the US Department of Energy, estimates that research facilities around the world contain some 2,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium - enough to make 80 nuclear bombs.

Most of the material is left over from the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union provided some client states with equipment and material for research reactors. Other significant quantities were supplied by the United Kingdom and France, or in the case of South Africa were enriched domestically.

The highly enriched form of the metal - the result of a complex and costly engineering process that only a handful of nations have mastered - was needed at the time to achieve the energy or “flux’’ required to power reactors. With technological advances since then, however, low enriched uranium - which is ill suited for a nuclear weapon - can now accomplish the same goal.

Many of these sites, however, are not well protected and considered prime targets for theft or sabotage.

A US-financed program to remove the bomb-grade material and have it “downblended’’ began a decade ago under the Clinton administration. Since then, highly enriched uranium has been cleaned out of 14 countries and returned to either the United States or Russia. In addition, a series of reactors around the world have been converted from high to low enriched fuel; several more, including one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are slated for conversion in the coming years.

But many arms control and counter-terrorism specialists have warned for years that the gravity of the terrorist threat has not been matched by the necessary urgency to secure the most vulnerable bomb materials. Indeed, the job of securing the stockpiles is only about half complete. From Libya to Chile to Belarus, more than a dozen countries still maintain supplies of highly enriched uranium, both in the fresh and spent fuel form.

Meeting Obama’s aggressive schedule will be challenging, officials acknowledge. The Romania “cleanout,’’ for example, cost $10.5 million and was five years in the making, requiring a series of sensitive agreements with the host nation, Russia, and several international bodies.

Even so, there were fears of a delay last week when Romanian officials temporarily raised objections about which government entity had proper jurisdiction to approve the transfer.

The new ability to ship all the material by air, however, could speed up the process considerably by reducing the number of countries that would have to grant permission for a shipment to cross borders.

Russia designed special equipment to fly the radioactive spent fuel out of Romania, including 5-ton casks that have undergone extensive testing to ensure they would survive a crash.

Delicate operation
Housed inside drab concrete buildings with crumbling facades and neglected grounds is the now-defunct nuclear research reactor at the National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, built in 1949 in the town of Magurele on the outskirts of Romania’s capital, Bucharest, to train civilian nuclear scientists.

Visible through two manhole-size openings in the floor of the cavernous reactor room are 288 spent fuel rods of highly enriched uranium that have been cooling in a special pool for more than a decade.

The water also serves to block the deadly gamma rays emanating from the rods, which were so radioactive when they first came out of the reactor that they could not be handled for several years.

The institute, like others in the former Eastern bloc, fell on hard times after the end of the Cold War. For the next decade and a half the institute experienced “a kind of turmoil,’’ said Zamfir Victor Nicolae, director of the facility, as funding dried up and the Romanian government had no strategy for what to do with the reactor, which was finally shut down in 2002.

The US Department of Energy stepped in to provide security upgrades, including cameras and fencing. But ultimately, Romanian officials agreed the materials were too dangerous to keep.

For the international team that arrived on the site in late June, the greater challenge was not the removal of the fresh uranium pellets, but rather the transfer of the spent fuel.

Over three days technicians carefully removed the fuel rods from the pool using a metal pole, placing them in a transfer basket. The maneuver must be completed entirely underwater to minimize radiation exposure for the technicians, engineers, inspectors, and security personnel on hand, who constantly scoured the area with Geiger counters measuring for radioactivity.

Every person in the reactor room carried a dosimeter to measure any exposure to gamma radiation.

With the fuel rods secured in the special shipping drums, technicians sprayed helium into the seals. If the helium leaks, it will be a clue that the seals are weak and that radiation might escape. A mass spectrometer measures for any leaking gas.

When the loading was complete, drivers took the spent fuel rods under the cover of darkness along secret routes to the airport, where a giant Russian Antonov 224 cargo plane waited.

The convoy required six trucks to carry the 18 casks, loaded with more than a dozen fuel rods each, along with a reserve truck and a crane in case of any problems. A helicopter hovered above with infrared cameras, while scores of Romania’s Jandermeria military police, in ski masks and carrying automatic weapons, guarded the convoy and blocked streets.

“The danger is very high,’’ says Florin Hulea, a police spokesman, noting that if the material were released, either from an attack or an accident, much of the city could be at risk of contamination.

Through a stormy night and into the early morning, the casks were carefully loaded by crane into the belly of the plane, parked on the end of a runway at Bucharest’s main airport.

Finally, the American team breathed a sigh of relief as the paperwork was complete - all the material now officially belongs to Russia - and the plane prepared for its 6 a.m. departure.

Said Bieniawski, the senior American official on the scene: “Every kilogram removed is one less kilogram that a terrorist can use to make a nuclear weapon.’’

But there was little time to tarry. Members of his team fanned out to meetings in Moscow and to negotiate removals in Libya, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and other countries.

“The Romania operation shows that even with a cooperative partner this is a really complicated task,’’ said Corey Hinderstein, director of the international program at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington. “That is why the president’s goal is so important. We can’t do it on our own. This needs to be a joint effort among many states. Presidential leadership is what will be needed to meet the challenge.’’

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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