The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration and Kazakhstan’s energy ministry worked together to remove 2.9 kg of unirradiated HEU from the IGR research reactor, transport it hundreds of miles to a secure facility for processing, and downblend it to low enriched uranium (LEU).
This activity fulfilled an agreement worked out between the two countries at the 2019 International Atomic Energy Agency general conference.
“The world is a little bit safer now that this material has been downblended into a less dangerous form,” said Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, NNSA administrator and under-secretary for nuclear security at the DOE.
After being removed from the IGR research reactor in Kurchatov, the unirradiated HEU fuel was transported by road in 25 special transportation casks more than 300 km to the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk.
Once delivered, the downblending process included crushing and grinding the graphite/uranium blocks, oxidising the graphite material, dry mixing with LEU powder, dissolving the uranium, and adjusting to get the uranium oxide to 19.8% enrichment. The entire process was conducted following IAEA safeguards. The uranium can now be used as fuel for LEU research reactors.
In a related development, the US and Kazakhstan have signed a joint statement committing to convert the IVG.1M research reactor at Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Centre from the use of HEU to LEU fuel in 2021, which will allow for that HEU to be removed.
The DOE said the US and Kazakhstan have worked together for years to decrease the amount of excess nuclear material in the country. Previous accomplishments include the elimination of all HEU from the VVR-K reactor, including the downblending of 49.3 kg of unirradiated HEU and the removal of 158.3 kg of irradiated HEU.