Highly-enriched uranium has been flown from Ghana back to China in the removal of all such material from the country.
The Ghanaian research reactor has instead been converted to use low-enriched fuel.
According to world-nuclear-news.org, the material came from the GHARR-1 Miniature Neutron Source Reactor at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission’s (GAEC’s) National Research Centre Institute in Accra.
The fuel was enriched to 90% uranium-235, which means it could potentially have been diverted to a weapons program, although it only amounted to 1 kg.
The conversion of the unit with the help of its Chinese designers and the removal of the material nevertheless eliminates this possibility. Similar reactors exist in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, as well as China.
Pictures released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show a large transport cask being loaded onto an aircraft in Ghana and unloaded in China.
The operation was conducted by the GAEC and the China Institute of Atomic Energy with support from the IAEA and the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The US bodies have so far helped repatriate some 6275 kg of HEU from 33 territories.
GHARR-1 is the first such unit outside of China to be converted to LEU. “With this pioneer engagement, Ghana demonstrated the feasibility of the conversion of these reactors outside of China,” said Kwame Aboh, project manager at GAEC. NNSA has said it is cooperating with Nigeria to complete a similar project there.
MNSR type research reactors were designed and manufactured by the China Institute of Atomic Energy, and the original design had a compact core with 30 kW thermal powers, containing about 1 kg of 90% enriched HEU.
Nine Chinese-designed MNSR facilities exist: four in China – one of which has been converted to LEU fuel – and one each in Ghana, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. They are used primarily for education and training purposes.
Upon the commitment of the Chinese Government, the China Atomic Energy Authority undertook the responsibility of MNSR conversion first for the prototype MNSR in China, and then worked with GAEC to complete the conversion of GHARR-1 and take back the HEU.
The IAEA’s cooperation with the MNSR community began in 2006 with a coordinated research project to determine the technical feasibility of converting them to LEU fuel.
Upon request from Ghana in 2014 for assistance in securing a LEU core for the country’s GHARR-1 facility, the IAEA’s Research Reactor Section provided support for the conversion and removal, carried out review missions at the GHARR-1 research reactor focusing on safety, offered regulator training on cask licencing and held workshops on transport security.
Nigeria and Syria have also requested IAEA assistance for conversion and HEU core removal. The Nigerian project is scheduled to be accomplished in 2018.
In Beijing, where the HEU fuel has just arrived, Mary-Alice Hayward, IAEA Deputy Director General, head of the Management Department, represented the Agency at HEU return event that the Chinese authorities organised today. She stated that “The IAEA was pleased to support our Member States with the conversion of Ghana’s MNSR and the return of its HEU fuel to China. This project represents a significant milestone in the broader endeavour to minimize the use of HEU in civilian facilities while ensuring continued access to nuclear research and training capabilities.”