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How Chile gave up its nuke material

With US President Barack Obama shifting his nuclear nonproliferation strategy to rogue states and terrorists, Chile has become an example of how small countries can play a big part in making the world safer.

world Updated: Apr 09, 2010 00:27 IST

With US President Barack Obama shifting his nuclear nonproliferation strategy to rogue states and terrorists, Chile has become an example of how small countries can play a big part in making the world safer.

Vast amounts of highly enriched uranium, or HEU, is being stored in relatively insecure locations around the world. Just 25 kg of it — the size of a grapefruit — could create a mushroom cloud of radioactivity and devastate an entire city if detonated.

At a nonproliferation summit in Washington on Monday, Obama will encourage leaders from 47 countries to work with the US to secure and remove HEU from reactors, as Chile finally did last month.

Even as aftershocks from last month’s magnitude 8.8 earthquake shook their equipment, US and Chilean engineers worked together to carefully extract Chile’s last HEU.

It was no simple operation — the radioactive material was carefully loaded into specially designed casks and then lowered into two huge shipping containers for the ocean voyage. All told, 60 tons of metal were needed to keep just 18 kg of HEU from leaking radioactivity.

After two and a half weeks at sea, including passage through the Panama Canal, a specially outfitted double-hulled ship arrived under US Coast Guard escort at the Charleston Weapons Station in South Carolina last month.

Customs agents and nuclear inspectors made radiation checks as the containers were loaded onto flatbed trucks and then driven to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where much of it will be converted to safer fuel and resold for nuclear power.