WASHINGTON -- Austria as of this week has become the 22nd nation to divest itself of all weapon-grade uranium through a program managed by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.
Roughly 2.6 pounds of highly enriched uranium was removed from the TRIGA reactor at the Vienna University of Technology and last month shipped by sea to an unidentified location in the United States under a 2011 U.S.-Austrian memorandum of understanding.
The NNSA U.S.-Origin Nuclear Material Program since 1996 has repatriated 2,788 pounds of HEU material to the United States in 59 separate shipments. That would be enough material to fuel 50 nuclear warheads, according to an agency press release.
The intent of the program is to ensure that terrorists and other rogue actors cannot gain access to civilian stocks of weapon-usable nuclear material.
“Completion of this project with Austria is another important step in the global effort to minimize the civilian use of HEU around the world, while preserving important research capabilities,” NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Anne Harrington said in provided comments. “The removal of the remaining HEU fuel is a significant achievement and it could not have been accomplished without the strong leadership and hard work from our counterparts in Austria.”
The other participating nations that no longer hold highly enriched uranium are Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Greece, Latvia, Libya, Mexico, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine, the semiautonomous Energy Department branch said in a fact sheet.
The project was completed one year earlier than planned and with minimal disruption to the reactor site, the agency noted. Vienna University's reactor has with NNSA assistance been fully converted to operate on proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium provided by the Energy Department. It will remain a resource for scientific research and training of personnel for the United Nation's Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the release says.
Austria funded the project; NNSA spokesman Robert Middaugh said the agency did not know the cost, while the Science and Technology Office of the Austrian Embassy in Washington was not able by press time to provide information on the effort.
The nuclear fuel repatriation program operates under the broader NNSA Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which aims to lock down or eliminate potentially threatening nuclear and radiological materials. Along with organizing the return of U.S.-origin uranium, the program has assisted in shipping nearly 4,200 pounds of HEU and plutonium material back to Russia and securing another 661 pounds of weapon-ready "gap" material that originated in the United States and other nations. Those stocks of material would be good for another 60 nuclear weapons.
This was the third U.S. nuclear material return project in Austria.
The DOE office is working to collect U.S.-origin sensitive substances from several additional nations, Middaugh stated by e-mail. "Information on specific countries is considered sensitive and cannot be provided," he said.