Science and Technology

Bombs Away, Belgrade

Uranium Yugoslavia
Threat No More: Uranium is removed from Belgrade's Vinca Institute in a joint U.S.-Russian effort to prevent nuclear terrorism (Photo: AFP).

In a top-secret operation, Russian and American special units spirited out of Belgrade more than 800 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium—enough to make three nuclear bombs. It took a whole year to prepare the secret operation to prevent the theft of the uranium from an aging nuclear reactor in Yugoslavia. Last week, a team of hundreds of Yugoslav scientists and technicians—with technical support from the Russian Nuclear Energy Ministry and the U.S. Department of Energy, and under the observation of representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency—extracted the ingots of uranium from a reactor at the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences.

The work was completed last Wednesday [Aug. 21] late in the evening. Before dawn on Thursday, three trucks left the institute’s compound—one with the lethal cargo, the other two acting as decoys. The convoy, its route guarded by some 1,200 soldiers, headed for Belgrade’s international airport under the cover of Yugoslav army helicopters. At the airport, the spent reactor fuel was loaded onto a Russian plane, which brought it to Russia. The Nuclear Energy Ministry’s press service told this correspondent that the reactor fuel had already been taken to its plant in Dimitrovgrad [Russia] to be turned into low-enriched uranium.

Moscow and Washington were quick to call the operation a clearly successful example of post-Sept. 11 Russian-American cooperation in thwarting terrorism. The U.S. State Department greatly appreciated Russia’s willingness to take back the fissionable material supplied to Yugoslavia in Soviet times. Russia had previously declined to take back such materials, according to The Washington Post. For this reason, in 1994, the Americans quietly removed 1,320 pounds of nuclear fuel from Kazakhstan.

Belgrade’s reactor is one of some 350 research reactors in 58 countries that use highly enriched uranium. Institutes and laboratories with nuclear reactors often cannot ensure required safety levels. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University expert who has inspected many nuclear facilities in various countries, says that sometimes a guard and chained gates are the only precautions.

Belgrade’s Vinca Institute is among the more vulnerable places on Bunn’s list. It was founded in 1958 as part of the Yugoslav leadership’s program to build an atomic bomb. Tito failed to realize his plan, and the reactor came to a standstill in 1984. But the consequences of his plan continued to give Washington the creeps, for specialists of the Vinca Institute who took part in secret nuclear research still worked there. The United States feared that they could be used by extremist Yugoslav army leaders under Slobodan Milosevic. Worse, the nuclear scientists could be lured to countries that form what the United States calls “the axis of evil.”

After the fall of Milosevic, the new, pro-Western government of Yugoslavia declared that it wanted to get rid of “the Vinca treasures.” When the plane with the uranium rods left for Russia, Belgrade breathed a sigh of relief, for the Vinca Institute no longer consti-tuted a potential target for terrorists.

The Russian Nuclear Energy Ministry says that the United States  footed the bill for the Yugoslav operation. It has also agreed to shell out US$5 million to restore the environment on the Vinca Institute’s grounds and create jobs for Belgrade’s nuclear scientists.