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

By David E. Hoffman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A06

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across 11 time zones, as well as questions about the security and storage of nuclear materials from weapons being withdrawn and disassembled.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.

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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