A Russian cargo plane took off from Germany this morning with a very unusual load: almost 600 pounds of highly enriched uranium. It was the biggest shipment ever in a joint U.S.-Russian program to keep nuclear material off the black market — and out of the hands of terrorists.
The uranium was originally loaned to an East German nuclear reactor by the Soviet Union before both states disappeared at the end of the last century.
Despite the logistical complications of operations like these, the political obstacles are always the most difficult. The goal of this program had been to get all fresh, highly enriched uranium from Soviet-supplied research reactors returned to Russia by the end of this year.
But three countries, Vietnam, Ukraine and Belarus are holding out. Together they have a total of 167 pounds of highly enriched uranium An oral understanding has been reached with Vietnam, talks are going on with Ukraine, and little progress has been made with Belarus.
A few other things set this shipment apart from the nearly dozen previous similar operations. The local storage site was quite well protected. For the first time a local government, not the United States, picked up the transport tab.
And German officials let the public know the transport would be happening, and roughly when. That did not please some members of the U.S. team. And a group of about 20 protesters forced a change of route. But German officials say they had to balance security and openness.
The loaded Russian Illyushin 76 took off right on schedule, at 8 a.m. local time. All the bomb-grade uranium is now at a secure facility south of Moscow. By the middle of next year, it is expected to be blended down to a lower enrichment level, useful in commercial nuclear reactors — but not for making weapons.