news: How the US and other advance world collaborated to get nuclear material out of nigeria
WASHINGTON — At a staging ground in Ghana, a group of nuclear experts watched the clock and nervously waited for the news
The team — a mix of American, British, Norwegian and Chinese experts, along with Czech and Russian contractors — were supposed to head into the Kaduna region of Nigeria to remove highly enriched uranium from a research reactor that nonproliferation experts have long warned could be a target for terrorists hoping to get their hands on nuclear material.
But with the team assembled and ready to go on Oct. 20, 2018, the mission was suddenly paused, with the regional governor declaring a curfew after regional violence left dozens dead. As American diplomats raced to ensure the carefully calibrated window of opportunity didn’t shut, the inspectors were unsure if the situation would be safe enough to complete the mission.
“Frankly speaking, yeah, I was nervous for my people on the ground and everyone else who was on the ground. It was important, but we had to go at it in a prudent way” said Peter Hanlon, assistant deputy administrator for material management and minimization, an office within the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration. “As someone responsible for this organization, I was nervous.”
Moving the nuclear material out of Nigeria has been a long-sought goal for the United States and nonproliferation advocates. But the goal has taken on increased importance in recent years with the rise of militant groups in the region, particularly Boko Haram, a group the Pentagon calls a major terrorist concern in the region.
It wasn’t until Oct. 22 — two days after the initial delay — that American diplomats, working with their Nigerian counterparts, were able to get an exemption to the curfew in Kaduna and prepare to roll out. But for security reasons, an operation that usually took days would have to happen in just one 24-hour period.
At 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 23, a Russian Antonov An-124 cargo plane touched down in Nigeria. Aboard were the team of experts, but also a TUK-145/C — a 30-ton cargo container designed specifically for moving such uranium from place to place and doing so securely.
From the outside, the TUK-145/C looks like a large, silver cylinder, designed to keep its precious cargo safe even in the event of a plane crash — as part of the safety testing before certification, the container is put into a pool of jet fuel, with the whole thing then lit on fire for 60 minutes. If you somehow could cut it down the middle, the container would appear to be two parts — an outer shell for security, and an innermost cask containing the spent uranium rods.
Loading the equipment off the plane took hours, as did the trip from the airstrip to the reactor. But finally, the team arrived at the reactor around 9 a.m. The group now included U.S. State Department security and Nigeria’s Army First Division, considered a top-end unit of the Nigerian military. Tiffany Blanchard-Case, a nuclear expert from the National Nuclear Security Administration, was one of the officials on the ground to oversee the transfer. She described a “grueling” day as the team rushed to condense what needed to be done into the secure window.
“No one was concerned about breaks, no one was concerned about lunch, everyone was just working 100 percent in order to make sure we could meet this schedule,” she said. “A long day for everyone.” Getting at the uranium is tricky business. The reactor core, which holds the actual material, is located at the bottom of a six-meter-deep pool. Above the pool, technicians have to create a platform and then center a vessel, known as the interim transfer cask, above the core. The cask contains a grapple, which reaches into the reactor and lifts out the core; when the core is loaded in, a plug is placed over the core and the cask is sealed, loaded onto the Skoda shipping cask, and then that unit is sealed inside the TUK-145/C. Replacing HEU with LEU in research reactors naturally requires caution, as anything nuclear-related comes with risks. But the Nigerian mission was particularly difficult because of security concerns, Hanlon said. He noted that Boko Haram, while not in the Kaduna region, has been operating in Nigeria for quite some time.
Br> “We had concerns about the security on the ground, in the region. Working very closely with the U.S. embassy, there were additional security requirements put upon us and limitations for us on having people on the ground at the facility itself,” Hanlon said. Hanlon and Blanchard-Case declined to discuss details of the security, other than to say it was heavy and that the U.S. State Department added extra forces as part of the agreement to allow the team to go in.
Alice Hunt Friend, a regional expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Boko Haram is not necessarily “active” in the region, but added that an attack by the group in that area shouldn’t be ruled out. “The city is a transport hub, pretty much right between Abuja and Kano on the main route. It is also in the belt that has experienced a lot of communal violence over the past 10 years, so I can also imagine that security for HEU sites would be of concern more generally, even absent a specific threat,” she said. “With much of the Nigerian military concentrating on the northeast, I would imagine security for sites in Kaduna is inconsistent.” Boko Haram is just one threat that worries security teams on the ground, said Peter Haynes, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
While the technicians were able to leave the country once their daylong mission was complete, security on site remained thick for the next five weeks as administrators worked the logistics and clearances needed to fly nuclear material over other nations' airspace. Asked about the security level during this down period, Dov Schwartz, an NNSA spokesman, said that “extensive planning went into ensuring the removed highly enriched uranium was safe and secure prior to transport
"All of our partners understood that operational security was paramount,” Schwartz said. "The world is a safer place today as a result of the determined work to remove this weapons useable Uranium from Nigeria.”