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High security Serb nuclear shipment reaches Russia

VIENNA (Reuters) - About 2,500 kg (5,500 pounds) of highly-radioactive spent atomic fuel, some of it potential bomb material, has arrived safely in Russia after a secret trip under heavy security from Serbia, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said.

The month-long operation was the largest single shipment made under a multinational program to return such nuclear material to the countries where it originally came from, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement.

“This type of shipment is always high security ... it was a long, long journey,” Sandor Tozser, a technical officer of the Vienna-based agency involved in the project, told Reuters.

A Western nuclear security expert, who declined to be named, said that if this kind of spent fuel fell into wrong hands it could have “dire consequences.”

“The material poses more of a ‘dirty bomb’ threat than a nuclear weapon risk,” he said, referring to a device where conventional explosives are used to disperse radiation from a radioactive source.

The IAEA said the nuclear material was transported from an old nuclear research reactor outside Belgrade to a secure Russian facility, saying it had “posed potential security and environmental threats.”

The project was carried out by Serbia and coordinated by the U.N. body with the help of U.S., Russian and European Union funding.

The delivery -- which included three weeks on a cargo ship to Russia’s Arctic port of Murmansk -- completed a plan to repatriate fuel from the reactor built by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and shut down in 1984.

“The project began in 2002 when fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel was transferred to Russia, and today’s shipment consisted of over 8,000 spent fuel elements, including 13 kg of HEU,” the IAEA statement said.

Uranium refined to high levels can be used for atom bombs.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano hailed the operation as a success. “This was a very complicated project. We had to involve governments, contractors, and non-governmental organizations.”

Technicians at Russia’s Mayak reprocessing facility will separate still-usable uranium from the spent fuel and store the remaining nuclear waste for future safe disposal, the IAEA said.

The agency said it has previously helped in similar transfers of research reactor fuel from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Libya, Romania, and Vietnam.

A nuclear summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in April vowed to lock down the world’s remaining supplies of HEU, which along with plutonium is an essential material for fuelling atomic weapons, within four years.

Editing by Mark Heinrich