US, Kazakhstan Cooperate to Dispose of Highly Enriched Uranium

ASTANA – On Jan. 7, the United States Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) announced the removal of 36 kilogrammes (approximately 80 pounds) of highly enriched uranium (HEU) spent fuel from the Institute of Nuclear Physics (INP) in Almaty.

The NNSA’s press release reports that the HEU was transported in two air shipments to a secure facility in Russia for permanent disposal. This complex operation was the culmination of a multi-year effort between the United States, Kazakhstan, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“The removal of this HEU is yet another example of how the international community continues to work together to prevent the threat of nuclear terrorism,” said DOE/NNSA Deputy Administrator Anne Harrington. “This cooperation reduces the chance that such material can fall into the hands of terrorists,” she noted.

According to the NNSA, approximately 10 kilogrammes (about 22 pounds) of HEU fresh fuel was shipped to a facility in Russia from the INP in September 2014. The HEU will be downblended to low-enriched uranium (LEU). Over the next several years, the DOE/NNSA plans to work with Kazakhstan, Russia and the IAEA to return approximately 50 additional kilogrammes of HEU to Russia, thereby eliminating all HEU research reactor fuel from Kazakhstan.

“The U.S., Kazakhstan and Russia share a long history of cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation issues. DOE/NNSA and INP also have cooperated to return more than 70 kilogrammes (150 pounds) of HEU spent fuel to Russia and to downblend more than 30 kilogrammes of HEU fresh fuel at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan. DOE/NNSA and INP also are working together to convert INP’s research reactor from the use of HEU to LEU fuel. Additional cooperation between the U.S. and Kazakhstan includes improving security for nuclear and radiological materials, constructing a Nuclear Security Training Centre at INP that will serve Kazakhstan’s entire nuclear industry, developing a nuclear security curriculum, providing radiation detection equipment at Kazakhstan’s ports of entry as well as associated training and support for [maintenance] of equipment, and cooperating on safeguards implementation and training for Kazakhstani officials on export controls,” the report said.

The operation’s relevance is highlighted by the fact Kazakhstan has proposed that it itself host the IAEA’s International Bank of Low-Enriched Uranium.Having renounced its Soviet-era nuclear weapons legacy in the early 1990s, Kazakhstan has long been a leader in the nonproliferation and disarmament movement. When the IAEA decided to create an international nuclear fuel bank, designed as an additional element ensuring the security of the global nuclear fuel cycle, Astana volunteered to build and maintain it as part of an effort to provide safe and internationally guaranteed access to LEU for countries which meet IAEA requirements but for political or other reasons are unable to procure uranium fuel on the open markets.

The U.S. and Kazakhstan continue to work together to convert Kazakhstan’s remaining HEU reactors to LEU fuel and eliminate all remaining HEU research reactor fuel as soon as technically feasible.

The NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy established by Congress in 2000 to be responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. The NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, reliability and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing and works to reduce the global danger from weapons of mass destruction among other things.