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NNSA and Kazakhstan Complete Operation to Eliminate Highly Enriched Uranium

13 Oct 2011

In an address today at the International Forum for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World in Astana, Kazakhstan, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman announced the removal and permanent disposition of 33 kilograms (approximately 72 pounds) of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fresh fuel from the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Almaty. The HEU was sent to the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, where it was downblended into low-enriched uranium (LEU) and can no longer be used to make a nuclear weapon.    Completed in secrecy over a seven week span, the operation was a combined effort between the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It follows two decades of cooperation and reflects the shared commitment by the United States and Kazakhstan to secure dangerous nuclear and radiological material from terrorists.   “This latest milestone builds on a history of successful efforts between our two nations to secure nuclear material, to combat illicit trafficking in nuclear and radiological material, to strengthen the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, and to pursue a world without nuclear weapons,” said Deputy Secretary Poneman.
“The removal and downblending of highly enriched uranium in Kazakhstan demonstrates the success of working collaboratively with the international community to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, bringing us closer to achieving President Obama’s goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material around the world,” said NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino. “Kazakhstan’s leadership on this project will prevent dangerous nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands. Our shared commitment to nuclear security has made the world safer.”   In a speech in Prague in April 2009, President Obama called for an international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. These operations reduce global threats by securing, removing or eliminating weapons-usable nuclear material. Kazakhstan is an important partner in nuclear security. It gave up the substantial number of warheads on its territory when the Soviet Union collapsed and has consistently played a nuclear security leadership role in the region. This is crucial given Kazakhstan’s prominent role as a supplier of uranium and its large commercial nuclear infrastructure. This week’s International Forum for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World, which brought together international leaders committed to eliminating the global threat of nuclear weapons, marks the 20th anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and recognizes the leadership Kazakhstan has shown pursuing global nuclear security, safety and cooperation.   Under the auspices of NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), the HEU was shipped in August to the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, which has the capability to convert HEU into LEU through a process that involves dissolving the HEU. Either depleted or natural uranium is then added in, reducing the enrichment of the resulting uranium. After seven weeks time, the HEU was completely eliminated. The LEU will now be returned to the Institute of Nuclear Physics for future scientific work that will support the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear energy. GTRI and Kazakhstan share a long history of cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation issues. In May 2009, Kazakhstan completed the return of over 70 kilograms (150 pounds) of used HEU fuel to Russia. Last November, GTRI and Kazakhstan worked with international partners to secure 10 tons of HEU and 3 tons of weapons-grade plutonium contained in used nuclear fuel from the BN-350 Reactor in Aktau, Kazakhstan. GTRI and Kazakhstan are currently working together to convert the research reactor at the Institute of Nuclear Physics from the use of HEU to LEU fuel.   Additional cooperation between NNSA and Kazakhstan has improved security for nuclear and radiological materials through efforts such as the development of a workshop to share ideas and tools for nuclear security, equipping Kazakhstan ports of entry with radiation detection equipment, bilateral cooperation on safeguards implementation, training of Kazakhstani officials on export controls, and working to apply the expertise of former nuclear weapon scientists to civil pursuits that advance global nonproliferation and security efforts.