Serb Reactor Fuel:Nuclear Proliferation Risk?
August 5th, 2006

Associated Press(AP)published recently a story titled “Empty Serb Reactor Inviting for Terrorists: At a Decrepit Serb Nuclear Reactor, Security is Light, Making It an Inviting Target for Terrorism.” Two weeks after 9/11, I attended a conference in Belgrade, known as ENRY 2001 focusing on environmental recovery after the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia causing amongst other human sufferings an ecocide, and presented three papers including the one dealing with the highly controversial depleted uranium (DU) issue. Separately I met with the managing director of the Vinca Institute on the outskirts of Belgrade who enumerated a litany of his problems including the fresh fuel as well as the spent fuel from the Russian research reactor that was shutdown years ago. My commentary follows.

Fresh Fuel

The Vinca Institute was in possession of a batch of fresh unirradiated fuel that contained weapons grade fissile uranium-235 concentrations. The managing director had just returned from the annual International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) session. The U.S. demanded that Serbia must return this fresh fuel to Russia as it allegedly constituted a high-level proliferation risk. Told the managing director that Serbia should do that but it should demand something tangible in return. Vinca desperately needed a new research reactor to stay alive as a nuclear research institute. So I proposed a TRIGA research reactor available from my former employer General Atomic (GA) in San Diego. Upon return to the U.S. I visited GA and needless to say they were excited about the prospect. GA approached the State Department who confirmed that they wanted the fresh fuel returned to Russia but did not want to pay for it. At that point in time somehow Ted Turner, who donated $1 billion to the UN, got involved and made an offer to pay for transportation to Russia. The Serbian government accepted Turner’s offer but asked amazingly for nothing in return. Typically Serbia got only verbal praise. In case of kidnapping and transporting Milosevic to The Hague Tribunal Serbia at least got loans from the IMF and the World Bank. The circus described in the AP piece unnecessarily dramatized the event-1200 heavily armed troops including snipers and helicopters were deployed from Vinca to Belgrade airport, half of Belgrade was sealed off for six hours.

Spent Fuel

Ted Turner did not offer to pay for the transport of spent fuel (some 8000 fuel rods) to Russia and nobody else in the international community bothered to pay for it. Serbia has not even started the process of recovery after three Balkan wars and NATO bombing. Hence, this irradiated fuel is still at Vinca as the Science Minister, Aleksandar Popovic, has had no budget to remove this headache from his system. He points out that the action was swift when it came to removal of fresh fuel but when it came to nuclear garbage nobody wanted to help. The same has been true for cleanup of land contaminated by depleted uranium (DU) used as penetrators in the U.S/NATO bombing raids.
Nuclear Proliferation Risk

Does this spent fuel constitute a proliferation risk? It depends on the definition of terrorism and who are the terrorists. In the U.S. the terrorists are viewed to be Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, etc., but not the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), Chechens or Pakistani Lashkar–e-Taiba who recently killed 207 Indians and wounded more than 800. Those killing innocent Serbs, Russians or Indians are not classified as terrorists. Only those killing Americans, Brits and Jews are.

Let us examine the case of Al Qaeda and whether they could conceivably steal the Vinca spent fuel and use it as a material for a dirty bomb. Incidentally an explosion of a dirty bomb would not kill many people. However, it would only contaminate the ground for maybe several years and would certainly cause panic. In order to attempt to steal Vinca spent fuel, Al Qaeda commando unit would have to wear protective suits, be equipped with robotic arms and a shielding material like lead as the AP piece points out. It is difficult to imagine that Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist organization, possesses such a capability. Anyway, nobody has ever attempted anything similar. The Chechen terrorists stole a canister with caesim-137 but failed to detonate it. Besides it appears that Al Qaeda might be in possession of tactical nuclear weapons purchased from Ukraine in 1998. Iran has also acquired tactical nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan and probably bought weapons grade plutonium from North Korea. There is no information to suggest that Hezbollah is in possession of tactical nuclear weapons but such a possibility cannot be ignored in the present conflict.

If the terrorists are those running extended air war campaigns like the U.S.-led NATO 78-days of infamy, maniacs of General Wesley Clark caliber or Israeli generals with the guided missile technology could easily hit an object like the Vinca spent fuel. As a matter of fact General Clark had Vinca on his target list. Perhaps somebody like the French President, Jacque Chirac, vetoed this lunatic attempt like he saved the Belgrade bridges. Clark bombed chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical plants, refineries, fuel storage tanks, electric power grid, etc., causing an ecocide in Serbia. Bombing of Vinca would have caused further contamination of parts of Belgrade. The Serbs needed a lesson to be punished for sabotaging the plan of diverting attention from the Middle East.

Funding Ultimate Solution

While the nuclear proliferation risk is small it is imperative for the spent fuel to be sent to Russia and reprocessed there as well as the ultimate dismantling of the reactor. Minister Popovic estimates the cost at about $75 million. His annual budget is only $90 million. Hence, he badly needs funding from donor countries or international organizations.