As U.S. attempted to remove nuclear material from Chile, earthquake struck

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration was in the process of removing the last highly enriched uranium from Chile when a powerful earthquake struck the country on Feb. 27.
The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration was in the process of removing the last highly enriched uranium from Chile when a powerful earthquake struck the country on Feb. 27. (National Nuclear Security Administration)
By David E. Hoffman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

When the shaking began just after 3:34 a.m. on Feb. 27, Andrew Bieniawski woke up with a start in his room on the 15th floor of the Sheraton Hotel in Santiago, Chile. A picture fell off the wall.

He raced to the lobby. He had arrived from the United States just the day before to oversee a delicate operation that the U.S. government and Chile had been quietly setting up for more than a month, and now an earthquake was tearing apart the center of the country. The magnitude-8.8 quake killed 486 people, set off a tsunami, cracked buildings and roads, cut off electricity and phone lines, and spawned dozens of aftershocks.

While the disaster unfolded, Bieniawski and his team from the Energy Department had another worry: They had packed 39.6 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to make a nuclear bomb, into a shipping container, ready for a secret evacuation by road to a port and then by sea to the United States.

The quake threw up several new hurdles for the secret mission, and Bieniawski's first concern, he recalled in an interview, was this: Was the container damaged? Grabbing a phone before the lines went dead, he learned that the weapons-grade material was intact. But his team's problems had just begun.

On the front lines

The Santiago operation put Bieniawski, associate deputy administrator for global threat reduction at the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), on the front lines of an effort to clean out nuclear materials from reactors and other facilities around the world so that they will not fall into the hands of terrorists.

At a summit in Washington on Monday and Tuesday, President Obama will press leaders or other representatives of 46 countries to accelerate such efforts and fulfill his pledge to lock up all the vulnerable material within four years.

In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to worries about hundreds of tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium left spread across 11 time zones, as well as questions about the security and storage of nuclear materials from weapons being withdrawn and disassembled.

Today, the focus is on smaller but still dangerous quantities of nuclear material, often nestled in research reactors well beyond the former Soviet Union. In the past year, the United States has cleaned out highly enriched uranium from Romania, Taiwan, Libya, Turkey and Chile. Bieniawski said 18 countries have been swept free of highly enriched uranium.

"It is a shrinking circle," he said.

Under the Nunn-Lugar program approved by Congress in late 1991, billions of dollars have been devoted to securing nuclear materials and dismantling weapons in the former Soviet Union. The region, with its porous borders, still concerns U.S. officials.

Attempts to sell highly enriched uranium have been uncovered twice in Georgia in recent years. Ronnie Faircloth, director of cooperative threat reduction for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, said joint efforts to detect possibly illicit transfer of nuclear materials are underway along the coasts and land borders of countries such as Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

Risky business

The cleanout operations are often risky. David Huizenga, associate deputy administrator of the NNSA, recalled one mission to move material from Bogota, Colombia, to the coast at Cartagena. When guerrillas took over part of the territory through which the uranium would be trucked, Huizenga and his team loaded their cargo aboard a rented Antonov plane and flew over the conflict on the ground.

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