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US-led Team Removes Uranium from Bulgarian Nuclear Research Reactor - 2003-12-24

A U.S.-led team of international nuclear experts has successfully evacuated 17 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium from an inactive nuclear research reactor in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The operation was the latest in a series of missions involving U.S. and Russian authorities aimed at keeping nuclear material out of the hand of terrorists.

Officials at the U.S. State and Energy Departments say the enriched uranium, kept at the Bulgarian reactor for more than a decade, was removed from the complex amid secrecy and tight security Tuesday and flown to a plant in southern Russia to be blended-down for use as reactor fuel.

The operation was the third of its kind since August of last year under a tripartite program involving the United States, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency called the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return Initiative.

Funded by the United States, the program repatriates back to Russia highly enriched uranium sent to research reactors in eastern Europe in past decades by the former Soviet Union.

Many of those reactors are now closed and in disrepair, and the nuclear fuel stored under questionable security conditions, raising the prospect that it might be stolen or otherwise acquired by terrorists.

The facility in Sofia, a Soviet-designed two-megawatt research reactor built in the late 1950's, had closed in 1989 and the fuel assemblies had been kept at the site ever since.

The uranium taken from the Sofia facility was said to be 36 percent enriched, a concentration scientists consider usable for nuclear weapons. The 17 kilograms were reported to be nearly enough to make a low-yield bomb.

Officials here say the uranium was evacuated with the full support and cooperation of Bulgarian authorities and security forces.

It was loaded into special Russian-provided canisters and flown on a Russian cargo jet to a facility Dimitrovgrad in southern Russia to be re-processed into a less-concentrated form.

The United States paid for the removal and airlift, which cost about $400,000.

A similar joint operation in September retrieved about 15 kilograms of enriched uranium from Romania, while fuel rods containing 48 kilograms of weapons-quality uranium were taken from a padlocked reactor near the Serbian capital, Belgrade in August of 2002.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham hailed Tuesday's operation, saying in a written statement the Bush administration has "taken the lead" in non-proliferation efforts to make the world safer, through "cooperation and determination" with other nations.

Mr. Abraham said proliferation of nuclear material is a world-wide problem requiring a world-wide solution, and he said terrorists and others with bad intentions must not be allowed to acquire deadly material.

Officials gave no indication the Sofia reactor had been specifically targeted by terrorists. In conjunction with Russia and the IAEA, U.S. officials have a schedule aiming at the recovery and return of all Soviet-era highly enriched uranium by the end of 2005.