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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Institute Loses Enriched Uranium

TBILISI, Georgia -- International nuclear inspectors, already troubled by the disappearance of bomb-grade uranium from a former Soviet institute, want answers to an even more disturbing question: Has any equipment that makes such material disappeared as well?

The facts lie beyond easy reach, on the overgrown grounds of the abandoned facility in rebel-held Abkhazia, a breakaway province of this post-Soviet republic run by separatists as a de facto independent state since 1993.

Sometime after insurgents captured the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, driving Georgian scientists from the institute, its cache of highly enriched uranium -- the stuff of nuclear bombs -- vanished.

A 1993 inventory showed 655 grams of the material at the site, the Sukhumi I. Vekua Institute of Physics and Technology. U.S. nonproliferation specialists say Georgian sources report it may actually have totaled 2 kilograms.

It would probably take many times more than that to build a bomb. But the uranium dioxide pellets are of the highest grade -- enriched to over 90 percent of the fissionable isotope U-235 -- and it's the only known case of missing bomb uranium in the world, according to data maintained by California's Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Georgian authorities say they have no clue whether illicit traffickers, well-intentioned scientists or others took the material.

"There are many people who would be interested in it," the minister of Georgian state security, Valerian Khaburdzania, said in an interview here in the Georgian capital, 340 kilometers southeast of the Black Sea coastal city of Sukhumi.

"It would have been easy for them to take it out by a ship coming in from Turkey, or from Ukraine. It's an uncontrolled area."

Scientists of Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry, regaining brief access to the institute in 1997, later quietly informed Monterey nonproliferation experts that the uranium was missing from its bunker. In May 2001, an International Atomic Energy Agency mission, finally allowed to visit Sukhumi, also found no highly enriched uranium, said Kenji Murakami, safeguards division director, in a telephone interview last week from the Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna.

The IAEA mission was dispatched at Georgia's request and under United Nations auspices to inspect the security of cesium and other radioactive materials still at the institute. Security there was "far from acceptable," said an IAEA source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Sukhumi complex's work historically focused on enriching uranium to the high levels needed for bombs, and the UN agency, responsible for guarding against the spread of nuclear weapons, wants to learn what equipment was housed there and whether it is still there, the source said.

But the 2001 mission had neither the experts nor legal authority to conduct such an investigation. Even if it had easy access to Abkhazia, the IAEA still wouldn't have full international legitimacy for conducting an inspection; that would come only when the Georgian parliament ratifies an international agreement granting the IAEA deeper access to nuclear programs.

The institute's history calls for such an investigation, the IAEA official said. "It needs a more extensive inspection" but, he said, "it needs a legal instrument."

Said another agency official, spokesman Mark Gwozdecky, "We're concerned about the situation in any non-nuclear-weapon state and the possibility they have equipment or material that could be involved in the development of nuclear weapons."

In the 1940s and 1950s, with the aid of physicists from conquered Germany, Sukhumi scientists developed gaseous-diffusion and gas-centrifuge technologies, processes in which uranium isotopes are separated and enriched sufficiently to produce an atomic explosion.

The Sukhumi institute eventually branched out to other fields. Its equipment inventory remains unknown to the IAEA, but institute staff may have worked on enrichment technology until the end. Ukrainian officials have disclosed that scientists who fled Sukhumi helped Ukraine develop its own centrifuge-enrichment technology in the 1990s.