Bush administration officials say a dangerous stockpile of weapons-grade uranium has been safely evacuated from Yugoslavia to Russia - in an operation conducted jointly by U.S. and Russian experts. The 50 kilograms of uranium is said to have been enough to make two or three nuclear weapons.
Officials here say the nuclear material was flown out of Yugoslavia Thursday in a joint operation that underscores growing U.S.-Russian cooperation in the non-proliferation area.
The highly enriched uranium had been stored, under only light security, at a research reactor in the Belgrade suburb of Vinca. Nuclear experts had long considered the Vinca site to be one of the world's most dangerous stores of bomb-grade material, and a tempting target for terrorists or governments seeking to build a weapon.
Under heavy guard by Yugoslav soldiers and police, the uranium was taken by U.S. and Russian experts to the Belgrade airport and flown by Russian transport to Dimitrovgrad, where it will be rendered into power-reactor fuel at a Russian reprocessing plant.
U.S. officials say the operation is significant in that Russia agreed to accept and reprocess nuclear material originally supplied to Yugoslavia during the Soviet era, and that a private U.S. non-profit group, The Nuclear Threat Initiative, has put up money to help Belgrade clean up the closed reactor.
The Yugoslav operation drew praise from private U.S. arms control experts. Darryl Kimball, executive director of Washington's Arms Control Association, told VOA the removal of the uranium was an important, yet small, step forward and that U.S.-Russian cooperation can be improved further. "The material that was removed from Yugoslavia is substantial," he said. "But is still but fraction of the nuclear weapon-usable material around the world that must be secured and safeguarded for decades to come. And while the United States and Russia have improved their work, cooperating on non-proliferation activities, there are still a number of areas where the two countries need to make further progress, particularly in Iran, where Russian economic interests are leading Russia to continue its long-time work at the Bushehr nuclear reactor, the nuclear power reactor that has been under construction for over a decade."
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, the private group involved the Yugoslav project, contributed $5 million to help dispose of more than two tons of nuclear waste at the Vinca site and keep technicians there employed.
The group was founded by media magnate Ted Turner and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, who a decade ago co-authored along with Senator Richard Lugar, the Nunn-Lugar program which has provided billions of dollars to countries of the former Soviet Union to retire nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
The Arms Control Association's Mr. Kimball says the private group's role is extremely important, but also said it "reflects poorly" on the U.S. government's own commitment to fund Nunn-Lugar-type projects.
The Washington Post, which first reported the Yugoslav uranium evacuation, said the Vinca reactor was the cornerstone of a 1960's effort by Yugoslavia under the late dictator Tito to build a nuclear weapon.
The Post said western governments had long worried that the nuclear material and scientific expertise remaining at the site might be misused and that a number of foreign governments and groups were "interested" in the uranium, including Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
It said Yugoslavia's newly pro-western government and scientists at Vinca were aware of the outside interest and had pressed to get rid of the nuclear material.