Savannah River Site engineer Jay Thomas was gone for 12 weeks to help oversee a top-secret project -- and now he can talk about it.
The mission, which took the North Augustan to the central Asian country of Kazakhstan and on into Russia, involved the careful packing and removal of 162.5 pounds of highly enriched uranium that had accumulated at an aging research reactor.
The spent fuel's successful relocation to a secret storage facility in Russia was part of the National Nuclear Security Administration's Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which is designed to recover and safeguard vulnerable nuclear material to prevent its exploitation by terrorists.
Mr. Thomas, a 20-year SRS employee assigned to Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, served as country project officer for the mission and accompanied staffers from the nuclear security agency's headquarters in Washington, where the project's completion was announced this week.
Though the transfer of the nuclear material was accomplished in 12 weeks, more than two years of planning occurred, said Mr. Thomas, who was recruited because of his expertise in transporting nuclear fuels.
"There was a lot of environmental analysis and working to get government approvals," he said. "On the technical side, we had a lot to do in upgrading facilities and training people to conduct the operations. A lot of them had never used these shipping containers before."
His team also identified and safeguarded transportation routes, inspected roads and rail yards and made sure there was ample, and well-armed, security.
"We had Russian guards in Russia and the Kazakh guard in Kazakhstan," he said.
In Russia, the uranium was removed from the canisters, which were returned to Kazakhstan to be refilled. The process was repeated four times over 12 weeks.
"It was all done in secret," he said. "We were not allowed to identify the route or the timing."
Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the nuclear security agency, said the mission was the first Russian-origin spent-fuel removal project to be completed since President Obama outlined his nuclear security agenda in a speech in Prague, Czech Republic, in April.
In a written statement, agency Administrator Thomas D'Agostino praised the mission.
"This effort is a cornerstone of our nuclear security agenda," he wrote this week.
The 2005 Bratislava Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation called for the return of highly enriched uranium fuel from U.S.- and Russian-designed research reactors in other countries and other steps to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. About 1,844 pounds of Russian-origin uranium fuel has been returned from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Libya, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
The NNSA announced Thursday that 32 pounds of highly enriched uranium from Australia had been shipped back to the U.S. under a companion program that deals with U.S.-origin nuclear materials. The spent fuel will be stored at SRS.
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