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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)

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When the quake struck in Chile, Bieniawski again had to scramble.

The materials, which were being removed in cooperation with the Chilean Commission of Nuclear Energy, included 30 pounds of highly enriched uranium from the La Reina Nuclear Center in downtown Santiago, about 9 1/2 pounds of slightly irradiated, highly enriched uranium and a small amount of spent fuel from the Lo Aguirre Nuclear Center, 40 miles west of the city.

Sarah Dickerson, a deputy director at the NNSA's Office of Former Soviet Union and Asian Threat Reduction, said the U.S. team that had gone ahead to prepare for the evacuation had cut the uranium rods into shorter pieces and had packed them into sealed casks, which were put in larger shipping containers. The containers, all told, weighed 50 tons and were ready for trucking to the port when the offshore quake hit. The epicenter was 200 miles from Santiago.

After calling to check on the containers, Bieniawski learned that the port the team had planned to use, at San Antonio, had been damaged, so a switch was made to Valparaiso, about 66 miles northwest of Santiago. The police checked to make sure that it was safe and the bridges intact. On Sunday afternoon, Bieniawski surveyed the route himself.

Then some drivers balked because their homes and families had suffered in the quake, and the trip was delayed, he recalled. Finally, on March 2, the trucks pulled out.

As the convoy crept along the highway that night, Bieniawski heard radio reports of aftershocks striking Valparaiso. When the team arrived, he noticed a large crack along the pier, but he said the quake damage did not interfere with loading. The uranium was taken by ship through the Panama Canal and arrived in the United States in late March.

With the operation complete, Bieniawski said, South America is free of highly enriched uranium, except for a small quantity in Argentina. The United States resupplied Chile with $2 million worth of low-enriched uranium for its research reactors and paid it $3 million to cover the cost of the operation.


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