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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S.-Russia Team Seizes Uranium in Bulgaria

An international team of nuclear specialists backed by armed security units swooped into a shuttered Bulgarian reactor and recovered 17 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in a secretive operation intended to forestall nuclear terrorism, U.S. officials said.

The elaborately planned mission, which was organized with the cooperation of Bulgarian authorities, removed nearly enough uranium to make a small nuclear bomb, the officials said Tuesday. The material was sent by plane on Tuesday to a Russian facility where it will be converted into a form that cannot be used for weapons, they said.

It was the third time since last year that U.S. and Russian authorities have teamed up to retrieve highly enriched uranium from Soviet-era facilities in an effort to keep such material from falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. Experts worry that such caches of uranium scattered in obscure corners of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states represent one of the most vulnerable sources of fissile material for would-be bomb-makers.

"Proliferation of nuclear materials is a worldwide problem and requires a worldwide solution," U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a statement. "We must not allow terrorists and others with bad intentions to acquire deadly material, and the Department of Energy will continue doing its part."

U.S. authorities have begun stepping up such joint operations with the Russians. In August 2002, a team from the two countries retrieved 45 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium from an aging reactor in Yugoslavia. The second seizure of uranium took place three months ago, when 14 kilograms was removed from a facility in Romania.

"We hope that you'll be seeing this more frequently," said Paul Longsworth, the Energy Department's deputy administrator for nuclear nonproliferation.

In conjunction with the Russians and the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. officials have developed a schedule to recover all Soviet-originated highly enriched uranium and return it to Russia by the end of 2005 for safekeeping and conversion, Longsworth said.

After last year's mission in Yugoslavia, the U.S. State Department compiled a list of 24 other foreign reactors that use weapons-grade nuclear fuel, some in old and poorly guarded facilities.

"We're certainly going in the right direction, although one might prefer speedier development," said Alexander Pikayev, a nuclear nonproliferation scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "But it takes time. ... Such problems cannot be solved overnight."

...The complexity of the Bulgarian operation demonstrated the challenges involved. Officials focused on a Soviet-designed, two-megawatt research reactor built in 1959 at the Institute of Nuclear Research and Nuclear Energy in the capital, Sofia. The reactor was closed in 1989, and the nuclear fuel assemblies have been stored ever since.

An IAEA team, accompanied by U.S. and Russian nuclear engineers, removed seals from storage containers and verified the contents before the material was loaded into four special canisters provided by the Russian government. The U. S. government paid the $400,000 bill for the mission. The operation took 48 hours, and special units of the Bulgarian domestic police took responsibility for securing the facility and transporting the uranium to the airport at Gorna Oryahovitsa, about 150 kilometers northeast of Sofia.

The uranium taken from the Sofia facility was 36 percent enriched, which scientists consider usable in nuclear weapons but not the most potent form called weapons-grade, which refers to uranium enriched 90 percent or more. Still, because it has not been irradiated, officials said, the Bulgarian material would be particularly attractive to outlaw elements.

"It's quite useful to a terrorist," Longsworth said. "You can handle it without protection."

The uranium was flown aboard a Russian An-12 cargo plane to Dimitrovgrad, in the Volga region of Ulyanovsk. A facility there, which is undergoing comprehensive upgrades due to be finished in the next couple of months, will blend down the uranium until it can no longer be used in a nuclear weapon, officials said. At that point, it could be sold for use in commercial nuclear power plants, officials said.

Nuclear Power Ministry officials were not immediately available for comment. A spokeswoman at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington said she was not able to discuss the operation.