Comment: Belarus' Lukashenka - We Have Weapons-Grade Uranium and We Intend to Keep It

ingress_imageBelarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has announced Belarus is still in possession of Soviet-produced highly enriched uranium (HEU) that it does not intend to part with. For which purpose could this dangerous material be used by a ruler whom the Administration of George W. Bush once famously called "Europe's last dictator"? Andrei Ozharovsky explores. Andrei Ozharovsky, 22/04-2010 - Translated by Maria Kaminskaya

The announcement that the former Soviet republic of Belarus still has a stockpile of weapons-grade uranium it has apparently kept since it was part of the Soviet Union was made on Wednesday, April 14, during Lukashenka's working visit to Gomel Region.

"I will tell you the truth: We have kept highly enriched uranium - hundreds of kilograms of what is basically weapons-grade and lower-enriched uranium," Lukashenka said, according to the news agency Interfax in Belarus and several English-language news sources in Belarus and Russia.

"I've been told by some: Move this uranium [out of the country]. To America, if you like. We'll pay you. Or to Russia. I say, first off, why are you dictating us [what to do]? This is our commodity. We are keeping it under the control of the [International Atomic Energy Agency]. We are not going to make dirty bombs and we are not going to sell it to anybody. We're using it for research purposes, is all."

The statement came on the heels of a top-level 47-nation nuclear security summit hosted by US President Barack Obama on April 12 and 13. Russia's Dmitry Medvedev and the Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovich both attended - and signed deals that see their countries soon getting rid of some or all of their weapons-grade nuclear materials. Lukashenko, however, ended up in the company of three leaders who never got their invitations, the other two being North Korea's Kim Jong Il and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and has apparently had a very sore reaction to being kept out of the talks.

"Okay, they told me. Since you don't want to give this uranium away, we'll not invite you to the nuclear security summit. I said, 'Thank you very much. I was not going to go.' When Israel did not want to be asked questions about nuclear weapons, it just waved its hand to them. Bye bye! I don't care for your summit! My answer was about the same," he said, according to the Global Security Newswire.

How many bombs could the "non-nuclear" Belarus make?

If one were to believe Lukashenka's say-so and assume that Belarus is in fact in possession of some 100 to 200 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium, one would have to admit this would be enough to produce a number of nuclear weapons. Making a more precise estimate would be a challenge since there is no information on the level of enrichment. Weapons-grade uranium with an enrichment level of 85 percent has a critical mass of around 50 kilograms. The "Little Boy" bomb dropped by the US on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, contained 64 kilograms of uranium enriched to a degree of 80 percent.

If, indeed, what Belarus has is weapons-grade Uranium-235 with an enrichment level of over 80 percent, then Minsk could start assembling nuclear bombs any time it wanted. The so-called "gun assembly" method for achieving supercriticality in a nuclear weapon - one piece of fissile uranium is fired at a fissile uranium target at the end of the weapon, similar to firing a bullet down a gun barrel - is simpler than the "implosion" technology, where a fissile mass of either Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239, or a combination, is surrounded by high explosives that compress the mass, resulting in criticality. If Belarus has the fissile material to stuff a bomb with, making the weapon will not be too difficult a challenge. One hopes, therefore, that the Belarusian leader will not fail to respect the Constitution of his country, which states that Belarus is a non-nuclear state.

So where's the uranium from, exactly?

Lukashenko's statement that Belarus' highly enriched uranium is being used for research purposes is bewildering. The only research reactor Belarus used to run - dubbed IRT-M (or Research Reactor, Thermal in Russian, with M possibly standing for Minsk), it had a thermal power output of four megawatts - was, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) data shut down as long back as January 1988, and was completely decommissioned by 1998. No research can therefore be possibly done on this reactor.

However, both spent and fresh, unused nuclear fuel could have been left from the time the IRT-M was online. It could be that it was uranium from this reactor that Lukashenko had in mind. The IRT-M was operated in a facility located near Minsk and now called the Belarusian Joint Institute for Power and Nuclear Research Sosny (formerly known as the Institute for Nuclear Energy of the Academy of Sciences of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic). The institute's website, however, offers no information on either the reactor or the uranium in question.

Another possible explanation of the uranium's provenance has, again, to do with Sosny. In the 1980s, the institute was engaged in a research that envisioned creating a transportable nuclear power installation called Pamir. This low-output reactor model was, too, supposed to be fuelled with uranium. The primary mode of transportation was a four-chassis heavy-duty all-terrain tractor truck. Sosny engineers came as close as building a pilot unit - the only thing left to do was fuel the reactor and start testing - and a second unit was in the final stages of completion. The work, however, was brought to a halt after April 26, 1986, when the world's greatest catastrophe to date occurred at the neighbouring Ukraine's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The fuel, though, may have since remained at Sosny.

HEU can also be used in so-called "critical" or "sub-critical" research models. But it is unclear whether Belarus has such installations to begin with.

A call to Sosny was placed to obtain a comment for this story and was picked up by an employee, who said that the institute's general director Professor Vyatcheslav Kuvshinov was away on a business trip and that there was nobody else who was authorised to answer such questions.

This is our commodity!

Then there's matter of the uranium's value, which deserves a separate discussion. One could take as a starting point the price of Russian highly enriched uranium, which, judging by information from various sources, was around $24,000 per one kilogram at the time the HEU- LEU (low-enriched uranium) agreement was signed between Russia and the United States.

The HEU-LEU agreement - or "Megatons to Megawatts," as it is also known - is a programme via which the United States purchases highly enriched weapons-grade uranium that has been down-blended to low-enriched uranium for use in US commercial reactors. The 20-year programme was founded in 1994 between Russia and the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), the country's primary nuclear fuel producer. The programme's total value will be about $12 billion by the time it is completed in 2013

Based on these estimates, Belarus could get $2.4 million for a hundred kilograms of its highly enriched uranium. Black market prices could obviously be several times as high.

Lukashenko's reference to Belarusian HEU as a "commodity" was therefore not an accident. If it is indeed fresh, not spent, nuclear fuel and it is suitable for use in research or experimental reactor models, then the material has substantial commercial value attached to it.

As one assumption, Lukashenko might want to swap his highly enriched uranium for low-enriched material to use as fuel for the future Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP). Belarus has been aggressively pushing for an NPP to be built to an experimental Russian project, dubbed VVER-1200, in a location chosen, for the time being, near the town of Ostrovets in Grodno Region. The project is spinning its wheels, however, as construction has not started yet, and a hundred kilograms of highly enriched uranium is anyway too small a stock to make enough fuel for even one reactor load. As the state-sanctioned environmental impact evaluation report says, the future NPP will need around 80 tonnes of fresh nuclear fuel made from low-enriched uranium.

Will the uranium be removed from Belarus?

Lukashenka seems to believe he "owns" his HEU and has apparently been offended by suggestions that he might soon have to part with the uranium in accordance with international efforts being currently undertaken against the threat of nuclear proliferation.

On April 13, during the Washington summit, Russia issued a nuclear security memorandum that says that in the course of 2010, Moscow intends to remove the remaining quantities of Russian-origin fresh and spent highly enriched uranium fuel from a number of countries of the former USSR or the East European Communist Block.

The repatriation of fresh uranium and spent HEU from research reactors of Russian and American designs currently or formerly under operation in third-party countries is being implemented by Russia and the United States with the support of the IAEA on the basis of an intergovernmental US-Russian agreement signed on May 27, 2004 called the*** Global Threat Reduction Initiative. This trilateral cooperation agreement is geared toward the retrieval of HEU sent by Moscow to 20 reactors in 17 countries and shipping it back to Russia for storage. By now, Russia has successfully retrieved HEU from Bulgaria, Latvia, Libya, the Czech Republic, Poland, Vietnam and Romania. Belarus is next in line.

The objectives of these efforts are obvious: to lock down tonnes of the world's most dangerous and poorly guarded nuclear material that could serve as stuffing for nuclear weapons, to prevent the proliferation of such weapons, and ensure the uranium does not end up in the hands of terrorists or mentally or emotionally unstable politicians.

And Lukashenka is clearly vexed by the idea that he would have to get rid of the Belarusian HEU:

"I have been pushed to the wall, a knife at my throat: Give it up! I say: I've already given away nuclear weapons. So what do we have now from that? So no one has the right to dictate. Let's sit down at the negotiating table and we'll discuss what to do with this large amount of enriched uranium," the Belarusian leader has been quoted by a number of media outlets as saying."

"We are not some banana republic and can [safeguard] this nuclear material like we have for, going on twenty, years now. We will only talk if it's done respectably, like partners, whatever pressure America puts on us, and Russia, from the other side. As for nuclear security, we are a very reliable and responsible partner for any country. We will do this in the future, too."

Is there weapons-grade uranium to begin with?

For all the sound bites filled with outrage and chest-beating, a number of experts believe Lukashenka is not entirely correct in his description of the situation.

Stanislav Shushkevich, a democratic politician and Belarus's former leader, who was ousted by Lukashenko in 1993 following accusations of corruption and remains a staunch critic of the regime, told the newspaper Vremya Novostei, as quoted by the Global Security Newswire: "Our country has no weapon-grade uranium. The nuclear weapons that had been deployed in the country were withdrawn as far back as the 1990s. Along with such arms, weapon-grade uranium [undoubtedly] left the country as well. [No other highly enriched uranium was here or could appear here later on]."

When he was at the helm, Shushkevich, himself a well-respected nuclear scientist, oversaw the withdrawal of Soviet-made nuclear arsenal from Belarus. He said Belarus cannot enrich uranium since it has no technologies for that and believes Lukashenko may have meant uranium used for experiments at the Sosny research reactor:

"Experiments staged there were useful for scientific purposes, but uranium used in such experiments was not pure, it cannot be labelled as weapons-grade."

He added that Lukashenka "had obviously no idea what weapons-grade uranium means when he made his statements."

A similar assessment was given by the former Chairman of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences Alexander Voitovich to the Belarus Service of Radio Free Europe.

"We have around 90 kilograms of uranium, it is low-enriched and unsuitable for making bombs," Voitovich said.

According to the academician, Sosny hosts the only uranium storage facility operated in Belarus. The fuel is under the control of the IAEA and had been obtained for the testing of the now defunct Pamir project.

What reaction should Lukashenko expect?

Whatever the basis for Lukashenko's statements, they did cause a stir within the international community: The very possibility of Minsk coming into possession of nuclear weapons is bound to put Belarus's neighbours on guard. The last European dictatorship may not be headed for the same infamous fate as Iraq, but Lukashenka is certainly inviting a comparison when he says unequivocally that he regrets having had to give nuclear weapons away after the break-up of the USSR:

"That Belarus removed nuclear weapons on the conditions that it was done by our nationalists, this was a most severe mistake. And I even had to sign that deal, because there was no way to turn: Pressure was coming from both Russia and Americans. If we had nuclear weapons, nobody would talk to us the way they are now."

Yet, it is unlikely that Lukashenka wants to be talked to the way they talked to Saddam. With announcements like these, the Belarusian leader is, quite simply, out of Saddam's league. The scandal will probably die down soon and what uranium Belarus is keeping will be repatriated to Russia.

As Shushkevich explained Lukashenka's absence at the top-level Washington talks to ITAR-Tass, "today, Belarus can neither help nor hinder anyone as far as disarmament is concerned."

"It simply plays no role, so its presence at the summit was pointless," he said, as quoted by the Global Security Network.