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Proliferation and explosion dangers in Belgrade

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(March 14, 1997) Forty kilograms (kg) of fresh high-enriched uranium (HEU) and forty kg of heavily corroded HEU are stored at the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences, Belgrade Servia. Officials said they want the fresh HEU to be taken out of Servia to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, for example into the hands of political desperados.

(468.4655) WISE-Amsterdam -The HEU, enriched to 80 percent Uranium-235, was supplied after 1976 by the ex-USSR to the so-called RA research reactor at the Vinca Institute. The reactor was closed in 1984. Neither the IAEA nor the US want to remove the HEU because of limited diplomatic recognition of the Milosevic government.

In 1973 a safeguard agreement came into force between Yugoslavia and the IAEA, which covers the HEU. The IAEA continues to safeguard the fuel, but on a very limited scale: the IAEA inspects the fuel only one day a month. In the view of Vinca experts, Russia bears prime responsibility for the problem, since it was the supplier. The commercial terms of the sale provided for Soviet takeback of the fuel. The Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) also refuses to take back the material.

The 40 kg of spent HEU fuel is stored in four basins with 200 m3 of water. The greatest immediate threat is that the spent fuel may explode or burn, releasing its radioactive inventory. Hydrogen gas is building up inside the canisters holding the damaged fuel. Officials say the spent fuel could collapse into the bottom of the pool and cause a critical accident. Measures by the IAEA showed a radiation level of 126 Becquerel per milliliter in Cesium-137. A new danger is the formation of highly flammable uranium hydride on the surface of the exposed HEU fuel. If this continues, the fuel inside the pool could start a fire.

Millions of dollars are needed to eliminate the danger. The IAEA cannot spend the necessary money, since the UN refuses to recognize fully the Milosevic government.

Tito's bomb
Diplomatic sources said that the RA reactor and hot cells at the Institute were part of a nuclear development effort by the late Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito as a basis for a nuclear weapons program. IAEA experts will investigate reports which say that plutonium separation may have taken place at Vinca about three decades ago. US government documents show that less than one kg of plutonium-239 has been separated in hot cells. The IAEA asked clarification from the government of the former Yugoslavia. The plutoniun separation should have been reported under the IAEA safeguard agreement. If not, it is a violation of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Yugoslavia signed in 1970. The IAEA is internally divided what to do. Some do not want to put too much pressure to take action, because of the country's former leading role in the non-aligned movement (NAM): Tito is still seen as a respected leader. In addition, it is feared that IAEA or UN pressure on Milosevic, who faces domestic opposition, would have unpredictable results. Other officials at IAEA want to get to the bottom of this case. They put this plutonium program on one line with the secret plutonium programs of Iraq and Romania. Iraq separated about five grams of plutonium before the Gulf War. Romania also produced plutonium under Ceausescu. So in three cases NPT member states carried out clandestine plutonium production, motivated by interest in nuclear weapons.


  • Nuclear Fuel (NF) 10 and 24 February 1997
  • Nucleonics Week, 27 February 1997

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