Chile gives weapons-grade uranium to US; other countries urged to follow
SANTIAGO, Chile — With President Obama shifting his nuclear nonproliferation strategy to rogue states and terrorists, Chile has become an example of how small countries can play a big part in making the world safer.
Vast amounts of highly enriched uranium, or HEU, is being stored in relatively insecure locations around the world. Just 55 pounds of it, the size of a grapefruit, could create a mushroom cloud of radioactivity and devastate an entire city if detonated.
At a nonproliferation summit Monday in Washington, Obama will encourage leaders from 47 countries to work with the United States to secure and remove this weapons-grade HEU from reactors, as Chile did last month.
“We are happy to see it go,’’ Fernando Lopez of the Chilean Nuclear Energy Commission told the Associated Press, which exclusively witnessed the secret transfer of the material from reactors near Santiago to the United States.
“Countries normally don’t want to be loaded with waste from other countries,’’ Lopez said. “To put it in a safe place is valuable for everybody.’’
The new US strategy considers a nuclear attack by terrorists or the spread of nuclear weapons technology to rogue nations to be greater threats than the Cold War fear of a communist enemy initiating a nuclear Armageddon.
Obama acknowledged the reduced threat from old enemies as he and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia signed a treaty yesterday to reduce the number of nuclear warheads their governments have ready to fire.
“For the first time, preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is now at the top of America’s nuclear agenda,’’ Obama said.
Even as aftershocks from last month’s magnitude-8.8 earthquake shook their equipment, US and Chilean engineers worked together to carefully extract Chile’s last HEU. It was no simple operation; the radioactive material was carefully loaded into specially designed casks and then lowered into two huge shipping containers for the ocean voyage. All told, 60 tons of metal were needed to keep just 40 pounds of HEU from leaking radioactivity.
After 2 1/2 weeks at sea, including passage through the Panama Canal, a specially outfitted double-hulled ship arrived under Coast Guard escort at the Charleston Weapons Station in South Carolina last month.
Customs agents and nuclear inspectors made radiation checks as the containers were loaded onto flatbed trucks and then driven to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where much of it will be converted to safer fuel and resold for nuclear power.
A year ago, Obama made a promise to lead a global effort to recover all of this material within four years — ambitious because it not only requires years of planning and diplomacy, but also highly specific technology and expertise.