NNSA partners with Russia to recover ‘dirty bomb’ material

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The National Nuclear Security Administration, in partnership with the Russian Federation, has successfully completed the removal of 14 Russian radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, from the Northern Sea Route. These devices, which contain high-activity radioactive sources, powered navigational beacons along Russia’s northern coastline. With this removal, the U.S. Department of Energy has completed its efforts to recover RTGs along the Northern Sea Route, a press release said.

RTGs were used for many years in Russia to generate electrical power at remote locations, including lighthouses and navigational beacons. The 14 RTGs recently recovered by DOE contain more than one million curies of strontium-90, a high-activity radioisotope that could be used in a dirty bomb.

“Today’s announcement marks a significant milestone in our joint efforts with our Russian partners to improve global nuclear and radiological security,” said NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Anne Harrington.“Our partnership with Russia is vital and essential to achieve our shared threat reduction and nuclear security goals. In achieving this significant milestone, we have cooperated to secure more than one million curies of vulnerable radioactive material, and helped to ensure that terrorists never get their hands on these dangerous materials.”

NNSA is a separate agency within DOE.

Over the past decade, the department’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative, or GTRI, has recovered 482 RTGs throughout Russia, including locations in the Far East, the Baltic Sea region, the Northern Sea Route, and non-coastal sites, the press release said. As a result of these efforts by GTRI, more than 20 million curies of radioactive material have been permanently secured.

The removal of the RTGs by Russian technical specialists involved work in challenging locations north of the Arctic Circle. The devices were transported using a combination of helicopters, ships, and trucks to a secure facility where they will be disassembled and the radioactive heat sources will be sent to long-term, secure storage. A team from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory supported this recovery project for GTRI, the release said.

The recovery and disposal of Russian RTGs has been an international effort involving financing and support from the United States, Russia, Norway, France, Canada, Sweden, and Finland. This year, Russia is using funds from the Federal Target Program on Nuclear and Radiation Safety to support the recovery and disposal of eight additional RTGs along the Northern Sea Route. Through this multinational effort, more than 800 RTGs have been recovered in the past decade, and approximately 20 Russian RTGs remain in the field.

In addition to the RTG program, the DOE also cooperates with Russia to monitor the downblending of 500 metric tons of Russian, weapons-origin highly enriched uranium, or HEU, and the conversion of the material into low enriched uranium fuel for use in U.S. nuclear power plants under the 1993 HEU Purchase Agreement, as well as jointly meeting the requirements of the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement to dispose of no less than 34 metric tons each of surplus weapon-grade plutonium. Other areas of cooperation include strengthening the security of weapons-usable nuclear materials, reducing the quantity and storage locations of such materials, and improving the deterrence, detection, and interdiction of illicit trafficking of such material, the release said.

The department’s GTRI program works to reduce and protect vulnerable nuclear and radiological material located at civilian sites worldwide. GTRI achieves permanent threat reduction by converting research reactors and isotope production facilities from highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium, removing and disposing of excess nuclear and radiological materials, and protecting high priority nuclear and radiological materials from theft and sabotage.

For a fact sheet on NNSA’s GTRI program, click here.

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