Uranium site worries nuclear inspectors

Errant missile strike, improper use feared at facility in Yugoslavia

War In Yugoslavia

April 19, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

UNITED NATIONS -- International nuclear inspectors are worried that 132 pounds of highly enriched uranium at the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Science, 10 miles from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, may be used improperly or may be hit by an errant NATO missile.

David Kyd, a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors nuclear activities around the world, said Friday that his agency's main concerns were the "physical security of the material" and the possibility of "radiological risk" should a bomb hit the plant.

U.S. political analysts also expressed concern that the Yugoslavs, if pushed, might embark on a nuclear weapons program or use the material for bargaining.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, an arms control research group in Washington, said there was enough material at Vinca to make two nuclear weapons of an implosion-type design, which Iraq was pursuing, and one bomb of a "gun-type" design, which South Africa has made.

Both U.S. officials and the international inspectors stressed that there was no evidence of Yugoslavia's abandoning its long-standing renunciation of nuclear weapons. Nor are there signs, they said, that elements within the military are diverting the uranium or taking other steps that would suggest an intention to develop a bomb.

"Yugoslavia has a very good record," Kyd said. "We have no concerns that they would misuse or misappropriate the highly enriched uranium."

But he acknowledged that since late January, his agency has been unable to visit the installation, as it usually does each month, and that for the past two weeks it has not been able even to telephone.

Western diplomats and arms control experts say that raises deep concern because the installation has inadequate physical protection and a poor history of handling radioactive material.

U.S. officials and international experts played down the possibility that Yugoslavia could make nuclear-laced weapons. "The amount of material is too small and far too stale, that is, too old to be used as a radiological weapon," a senior administration official said. "The radioactive material has been sitting in the spent fuel ponds for years, and there's very little of it to make a serious weapon."

Kyd agreed that Yugoslavia would be hard pressed to make a radiological bomb -- a "dirty nuke" -- from the material. He added that it would be difficult for Belgrade to separate the plutonium in the spent fuel to make a bomb or to disperse it to cause panic and cancer.

"The Yugoslavs do not have the ability to remove plutonium from the low-enriched uranium," he said.

Administration officials and the international inspectors said Vinca was not on the list of NATO targets. Even if it were hit by accident, one official said, the damage to the people of the surrounding area and the environment would not be catastrophic.

"Yes, it could be messy," a senior administration official said. "But there would not be major radiological contamination."

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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