Wednesday, August 9, 2006

U.S. and international officials completed a covert operation yesterday to remove 90 pounds of easy-to-handle uranium from a research facility in Poland that was vulnerable to theft by terrorists, according to Bush administration officials.

“We are in a race against time in preventing terrorists from getting their hands on this kind of material,” said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), who took part in the uranium-removal operation.

“There is more to be done, and our people are working around the world to help secure this material,” he said in a telephone interview from Warsaw.

The 90 pounds of so-called “fresh” highly enriched uranium (HEU) was removed by heavily armed secret convoy Tuesday night from Poland’s Maria research reactor at the Institute of Atomic Energy in Otwock-Swierk, Poland, officials said.

Fresh uranium is less radioactive and easier to handle and transport than irradiated HEU, and thus is a target for terrorists and criminals seeking to acquire nuclear material for bombs, Mr. Wilkes said.

Nuclear specialists from the NNSA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Polish and Russian governments took part in the two-day operation at the civilian research center, located about 20 miles southeast of Warsaw.

The material was taken to a Polish airfield, where it was then transported by a Russian An-12 cargo aircraft to a secure plant at Dimitrovgrad, Russia. The uranium will be blended there to make it less vulnerable for theft or terrorist use.

The operation began several months ago after NNSA officials learned that the large amount of fresh HEU was stored at the reactor facility, built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The U.S. government paid for the operation, which cost about $500,000.

The NNSA also had installed equipment to improve the security of the facility and will help Poland convert the facility in the future to one using low-enriched uranium.

It was the largest amount of HEU removed under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a program to secure or dispose of high-risk and vulnerable nuclear and radiological material around the world.

So far, the program has recovered and returned to Russia about 506 pounds of HEU from Soviet-era reactors in Serbia, Bulgaria, Libya, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Czech Republic and Poland, according to officials.

U.S. intelligence officials say terrorists, including al Qaeda, are seeking to develop and use nuclear or radiation bombs in terrorist attacks.

Documents recovered by U.S. military forces after the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 revealed that al Qaeda was seeking information and material related to nuclear arms, according to a CIA report from 2003. One document contained a sketch of a crude nuclear device. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden also has told his followers that it is a religious duty of all Muslims to acquire nuclear weapons.

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