Source: DOE | Release | September 22, 2020

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Energy worked together to remove 2.9 kilograms 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 (IAEA) General Conference.

“The world is a little bit safer now that this material has been downblended into a less dangerous form,” said Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, NNSA Administrator and Under Secretary for Nuclear Security of DOE. “Thank you, Kazakhstan, for your steadfast resolve in accomplishing this important task.”

After being removed from the IGR research reactor in Kurchatov, the unirradiated HEU fuel was shipped by truck in 25 special transportation casks more than 200 miles to the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk.

Once delivered, the downblending process included crushing and grinding the graphite/uranium blocks, oxidizing 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, further supporting NNSA’s HEU minimization efforts.

Building on this cooperation, the United States and Kazakhstan signed a Joint Statement during the 2020 IAEA General Conference, committing to convert the IVG.1M research reactor at Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center from the use of HEU to LEU fuel in 2021, which will allow for that HEU to be removed in the future. The collaboration on conversion between the two countries has been ongoing for more than 10 years, and recently the international team successfully completed testing of the IVG.1M LEU fuel. The Joint Statement marks the transition to the final phase of conversion.

The United States 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 kilograms of unirradiated HEU and the removal of 158.3 kilograms of irradiated HEU.