STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And let's follow another delicate operation, this one involving dangerous nuclear material that needed to be moved across Europe. A shipment of bomb-grade uranium was recently sent from a nuclear research reactor in Poland to a secure facility in Russia. When the uranium left Poland a couple of weeks ago, reporter Geoff Brumfiel was on the scene, and he has this report.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL: There's no way that you'd mistake this for a shipment of, say, Polish sausages. For one thing, the trucks are escorted by dozens of heavily armed police officers.
(Soundbite of truck engines, beeping)
BRUMFIEL: And if that didn't clue you in, the big radioactive signs would.
Mr. IGOR BOLSHINSKY: I feel like we're prepared for everything, but you're just a little bit nervous.
BRUMFIEL: Igor Bolshinsky is part of a small American team that's planned this nuclear road trip. They're moving uranium from Poland back to Russia, where it came from in the first place. The route's complicated. The material will travel by truck to Warsaw, by train to the Baltic port of Gdynia, by boat to the Russian port of Murmansk, and by train again to a high security facility in Siberia.
Mr. BOLSHINSKY: Okay?
Unidentified Man: See you.
Mr. BOLSHINSKY: So we'll see you in two hours...
Unidentified Man: Probably in terminal.
Mr. BOLSHINSKY: In terminal, yeah. Good luck.
(Soundbite of truck engines)
BRUMFIEL: The uranium was never intended for weapons. It was fuel for a small nuclear reactor that scientists use for research. Globally, there are over 100 research reactors like this one.
Matthew Bunn is an expert on nuclear security at Harvard University.
Professor MATTHEW BUNN (Harvard University): Most of them were supplied either by the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and they do all kinds of different work, ranging from training students to even interesting archeology and medical research.
BRUMFIEL: These reactors are using highly enriched uranium fuel pure enough for a bomb. Since September 11th, the U.S. government has grown increasingly worried that terrorists could steal this material or buy it. Bunn says that these reactors aren't very well guarded.
Mr. BUNN: They're just not places where it's plausible that you're ever going to have the kinds of, you know, military-scale security that are really, in my view, appropriate.
BRUMFIEL: The solution? Convert the reactor to run on low-enriched uranium that can't be used in bomb, then transport the dangerous stuff back to where it came from - in this case, Russia. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, guess again.
Mr. ANDREW BIENIAWSKI: There's a lot of work at the diplomatic and technical level. You have people from the ministry of economy. You have the director of the reactor...
BRUMFIEL: Andrew Bieniawski is the guy in charge of the U.S. program. He says that just moving the fuel from this one reactor took three years.
Mr. BIENIAWSKI: You have coordination with the U.S. embassy here. You have coordination with the police and the Special Forces.
BRUMFIEL: In April of last year, President Obama set a goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material in just four years. Not every dangerous research reactor can be converted by then, but Bieniawski is hoping to clear out 10 countries. As we stand by the train waiting for shipping documents to be signed, even that goal seems ambitious.
Mr. BIENIAWSKI: It is an aggressive schedule.
BRUMFIEL: Given that we're standing in a rail yard waiting to leave.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BIENIAWSKI: Yeah. I mean, it is an aggressive schedule, but I do think that we can make it.
(Soundbite of train horn)
BRUMFIEL: Eventually, the train does get moving, and the global program is moving ahead, too. In the past three years, Bieniawski's team has shut down or converted two dozen reactors in places like China, Bulgaria, Chile and the United States, which still has several reactors running on bomb-grade fuel. But there's one place the U.S. effort has barely reached. Here's Harvard's Matthew Bunn.
Prof. BUNN: One of the biggest and most difficult stumbling blocks at this point is Russia, frankly. They've been willing to be helpful on converting the reactors that they supply in other countries, but in converting their own, which is the world's largest number of research reactors, they've been moving extraordinarily slowly.
BRUMFIEL: But the U.S. needs to tread carefully. Russian cooperation is essential for operations like this one in Poland. In fact, it's a Russian ship that will take the fuel on the next leg of its journey. One by one, the containers are lowered into the hold, then covered with heavy plates that will shield the crew from radiation.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of banging)
BRUMFIEL: After a final check from Customs authorities, the boat pulls away from the port.
(Soundbite of horn)
BRUMFIEL: And the Americans, the Poles and Russians all gather dockside to celebrate with a toast.
Mr. BIENIAWSKI: We have developed a special saying, and it is neevasmoshya vasmoshna.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman: Neevasmoshya vasmoshna.
Mr. BIENIAWSKI: The impossible is possible.
Unidentified Woman: Is possible.
Unidentified Group: Cheers.
BRUMFIEL: Jeff Brumfiel, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.