Reuters Environment NewsBy Suren Babayan
TBILISI - A controversial shipment of nuclear material destined for Britain has left the research reactor outside the Georgian capital Tbilisi where it was being stored, a senior official said on Thursday.
"Both the enriched uranium and the spent nuclear fuel have been removed from our reactor," its director Shukri Abramidze told Reuters.
Abramidze declined to say whether the nuclear material - comprising four kg (nine pounds)of highly enriched uranium and about one kg of spent nuclear fuel - had already left Georgia.
Later on Thursday eyewitnesses said a U.S. military transport plane had taken off from Tbilisi airport. Officials declined to say what the plane might be carrying.
Airport staff said the airport had been full of Georgian security men.
The New York Times said on Tuesday Washington was helping the former Soviet republic to remove nuclear fuel from the research reactor.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his decision to accept the cache, saying the operation had been kept secret because of fears that rebels opposed to the Georgian government might take control of the research reactor.
The cargo is expected to arrive in Britain later this week on a U.S. military transport plane. British environmentalists have protested against the government's decision to take it.
Vakhtang Abashidze, spokesman for Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze, said Tbilisi had reached an agreement with Washington last year on getting rid of the nuclear material.
He said the agreement also envisaged active U.S. involvement in improving security at the 2,000 megawatt reactor, which was built in the 1950s to conduct experiments at low temperatures.
Georgian Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili said on Tuesday his impoverished country would get "quite a significant sum for the removal" but declined to give details.
Abashidze said the money would be allocated to the Tbilisi Institute of Physics, which owns the reactor.
Georgia had originally hoped to enlist Russian help in removing the nuclear material but Moscow failed to make good on promises to accept the shipment. Washington went ahead with the operation while keeping Moscow fully informed.
Reuters Environment NewsBy Gerrard Raven
LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday defended his government's decision to reprocess nuclear material from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, saying Britain was joining international action to promote world security.
His comment came amid mounting controversy after the head of the Scottish plant which is due to handle the shipment said it was undergoing a safety review and could not handle the most dangerous part of the consignment for two years.
Facing criticism from environmentalists and some opposition politicians, Blair insisted that the reprocessing at a remote Scottish plant of about five kilograms (11 lbs) of material would add only marginally to the stockpile of nuclear waste there.
Blair told parliament the United States had already taken some 600 kg of unused highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan while Russia had taken 137 kg of it from Iraq since the Gulf War.
"Other European countries are making other contributions. That is the reason why we thought it important to do what we did," Blair said.
No announcement had been made of Britain's decision to take the four kg of highly enriched uranium and about one kg of highly irradiated spent fuel from a Georgian research laboratory for reprocessing at Dounreay before news of it appeared in the New York Times.
Blair said the operation had been kept secret because there were fears the laboratory could be taken over by Chechen rebels opposed to the Georgian government.
Controversy mounted on Wednesday when Dounreay director Ray Nelson told BBC radio the plant was undergoing a safety review and could not handle the most dangerous part of the consignment for two years.
"About a kilogram of the material that is irradiated we cannot reprocess straight away because we are currently modifying the reprocessing plant," he said.
"Before we are in a position to reprocess that material we will have to make a safety case and prove to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate that we are ready to go."
But Blair said that once processed all that would be left of the material would be two drums of intermediate nuclear waste, compared with 14,000 drums already stored at Dounreay.
Nelson said it would take two years to get Dounreay's reprocessing plant back into operation, and the spent fuel would have to be stored in the meantime.
The environmental group Greenpeace staged a demonstration outside Blair's Downing Street office and described the decision to accept the material as "ill-conceived and dangerous".
The cargo is expected to arrive in Britain later this week on a U.S. military transport plane.
The deal was struck between Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton shortly before the British leader's visit to Washington in February, although Washington's initial approach was made several months earlier.
Russia, France and the United States had previously refused to accept the material.
Junior Foreign Office minister Doug Henderson told parliament that highly enriched uranium of the type in the laboratory was "ideally suited for use in a nuclear weapon".
"It was essential that it was moved to a secure location. We will be making a significant contribution to international security," he said.
Earlier Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, said Britain understood the Georgian consignment was "the last such consignment around the countries of the former Soviet Union and this is the end of the story".
"If this material was to be used in a nuclear weapon in the Middle East, then Britain and Europe would get far more than one percent of the actual radioactive fall-out," Cook told BBC radio.
"Therefore taking one percent of the problem is not a bad bargain from our point of view." REUTERS.
Reuters Environment News
LONDON - Britain said on Tuesday that five kilograms of highly enriched uranium being sent from Georgia would be reprocessed and used to produce materials such as targets for medical isotopes.
The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority said in a statement that the British government's decision to accept the uranium, of which 0.8 kg is irradiated, was to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
It said the uranium from a research reactor in Georgia would be processed at its Dounreay facility in northern Scotland.
It said the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was consulted prior to the agreement to handle the material, while the Scottish Environment Protection Agency said it had approved because of the special circumstances of the case.
News of the agreement to transport the material to the U.K. was leaked by a U.S. newspaper, which said Washington had been worried about the material falling into wrong hands but was reluctant to accept it for fear of challenges from American environmentalists.
British environmentalists have reacted angrily to the news and say they have not ruled out protests.
Dominick Jenkins, nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth said the group was seeking assurances from Prime Minister Tony Blair that "Britain will not be the final waste dump for Georgian nuclear waste or nuclear waste from any other country."
Environmentalists said they were dismayed that the material was heading to Dounreay.
"Dounreay leaks like a sieve and some of this material is likely to end up on the beaches," said Kevin Dunion, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
A ban on fishing within two kilometres of the Dounreay plant, made at the end of October 1997 following the discovery of radioactive particles in the North Sea near to the nuclear facility, is still in operation, a spokeswoman at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency said.
Reuters Environment NewsBy John Morrison
LONDON - Britain sparked a protest by Scottish nationalists on Tuesday by confirming a secret deal to accept a cargo of nuclear material from the former Soviet republic of Georgia for reprocessing in Scotland.
The government said the decision to process the material at the Dounreay nuclear complex underlined its commitment to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
"The government decision was taken on grounds of safety and non-proliferation," a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters, referring to Britain's obligations under agreements between the Group of Eight industrialised countries.
But it was immediately attacked by the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Alex Salmond, who said Scotland was becoming the "soft touch for the dirty end of the nuclear industry".
"It seems the prime minister is secretly offering Scotland as a nuclear waste bin without so much as a by your leave and certainly no public debate," Salmond told Reuters.
The government, confirming a report in the New York Times, said Britain had agreed to accept a small amount of fresh and spent Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel that has been held at a civil research reactor outside the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
"Most of the material is fresh fuel and will be usable immediately in the routine production of medical isotope targets for the treatment of cancer," it said.
The New York Times said Britain considered the top-secret operation important enough to make an exception to regulations against accepting foreign nuclear material.
Britain volunteered to accept the uranium after Washington declined to move it to the United States because of potential challenges from environmentalists, the paper said.
It said France was asked to take the material, which includes 8.8 pounds (3.99 kg) of HEU and 1.76 pounds of highly radioactive spent fuel, but refused.
"If this consignment is as small as Whitehall officials are claiming, why was it turned down by both the United States and then the French?" Salmond said.
Salmond's party, which seeks independence for Scotland, is edging level with Blair's Labour party in opinion polls ahead of the first elections to a Scottish parliament in May 1999.
Blair's spokesman said the government decided to accept the shipment in order to avoid the uraniunm being misused in any way.
He said it was "nonsense" to suggest Blair was putting his relationship with U.S. President Bill Clinton ahead of concerns about nuclear safety and ruled out any environmental danger.
Georgian officials in Tbilisi said on Tuesday the operation to remove the material was almost complete.
The New York Times said the material has been a serious concern for American officials, who feared it could fall into the hands of Chechen gangs, Iran, or another aspiring nuclear power.
British officials declined on security grounds to say when the material would be taken to Dounreay on the remote north coast of Scotland. The New York Times said U.S. air force transport aircraft would fly the cargo to Britain this week.
Reuters Environment NewsBy Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON - Federal regulators want to better track radioactive measuring gauges used in many industries to prevent the devices from accidentally being mixed with scrap metal.
The gauges, which are similar to cameras that shoot beams of radiation, are used by industries such as breweries to measure the depth of beer-holding tanks and steel mills to determine the thickness of iron plates.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said on Wednesday that it will propose rules requiring the 6,000 entities that regularly use the gauges to permanently label the devices.
"As a result of inadequate control, some devices have been inadvertently mixed with metal scrap intended to be melted down and recycled into other products," the NRC said.
"In some cases, the devices have been accidentally smelted in steel mills, resulting in radioactive contamination of the mills themselves (and) of their metal products," the agency said.
The NRC said there is "a risk" of radiation exposure to workers and the public from radioactive devices that are melted down. The agency said it is attacking the problem in response to concerns raised by the steel industry.
"No steel company wishes to melt a lost radioactive device. Such meltings have cost millions of dollars to our companies," said Thomas Danjczek, president of the Steel Manufacturers Association.
"Of even more concern, they expose steel workers to the possibility of radioactive contamination," he said.
Currently, the devices in question are subject to minimal regulatory oversight, according to the NRC.
However, the agency will propose that companies using the gauges register with the NRC and be subject to heavy fines if the devices are lost.
Reuters Environment News
KEY WEST, Fla. - Usually mellow Florida Keys residents are up in arms over a U.S. military proposal to launch target missiles over the tourist and naturalist mecca that they say would threaten human, animal and bird life.
Missile testing would ruin "the cleanest and quietest places left on Earth," said Key West resident Annie Robinson, who with her her neighbors vows to fight the plan all the way.
"If you think the '60s were bad, wait and just see what happens here," retiree Bob Smith said.
During noisy hearings in Key West and Marathon last month, critics accused the military of playing down the risk to civilians and ignoring possible environmental damage to nesting herons, sea turtles, and even the endangered silver rice rat.
A report describing the local opposition is in the hands of the director of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in the Pentagon. The military's plan is to drop target missiles from aircraft over the Gulf of Mexico to test new anti-missile weapons. A backup option is to launch 44-foot (14 metre)-tall Hera target rockets over the grass flats and mangrove islands of the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.
Military technicians on the other side of the gulf would practice shooting the rockets down with new versions of the Patriot anti-missile missiles that performed poorly during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
OPPONENTS WANT KEYS OFF THE LIST
Opponents want Army Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles to strike the Keys from a list of possible launch sites assessed in a draft environmental study released on Feb 6. Lyles told Florida lawmakers in November he would prefer to drop target missiles from C-130 aircraft under the ballistic missile defense plan, but officials retained the Keys as a possible backup.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement concludes that the Hera rocket's ammonium perchlorate fuel and hydrochloric acid exhaust would be easily diluted by sea water, the noise from launches would flush birds temporarily but they would quickly return to their roosts, and a "Launch Hazard Area" would protect civilians adequately in the event a rocket veers off course and needs to be destroyed by remote control.
The report's final version will be released in September. But already critics here disagree with nearly every finding.
"The military certainly got an earful of how opposed - practically universally opposed - the community is," said Dennis Henize, a retired meteorologist who lives on Cudjoe Key less than two miles (3.2 km) from one of the proposed launch pads. "We're asking them to set aside the Keys and eliminate them even as an alternative option."
BMDO spokesman Air Force Lt.Col. Rick Lehner said the Pentagon cannot drop the Keys from consideration without violating an environmental law requiring officials to assess all feasible options.
The Pentagon has named two sites in the Keys as possible launch pads for unarmed Heras. Up to a 12 a year would be launched starting next year to mimic North Korean No-Dong or Iraqi Scud missiles. Technicians at Eglin Air Force Base across the Gulf of Mexico would practice shooting the rockets down.
CRITICS SAY MILITARY IGNORES POSSIBLE DAMAGE
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 residents attended the three-hour Key West hearing at the Harvey Government Center. Many said the Pentagon report failed to assess realistically the damage that might occur if one of the 12-tonne rockets exploded on the launch pad or just above it.
Air Force Maj. Tom Kennedy, who was in charge of the report at Eglin, acknowledged that it does not specifically assess the environmental effects of a launch explosion above the refuge. "A launch mishap is such an unlikely event that we didn't go into that depth," he said.
In December 1996, Hank Marien of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization promised a detailed analysis of the effects of just an explosion. Instead, the report summarizes previous scientific studies, including one conducted for the Department of Public Sanitation in Moscow. Marien was not on hand during the hearings.
Controversy also rages over the size of what military officials call the Launch Hazard Area. This fan-shaped wedge extends into the Gulf of Mexico and must be kept free of people, boats or aircraft during launch.
Air Force officials say the missiles can be launched safely as long as homes are no closer than 6,500 feet (1980 metres), but residents and local political leaders remain skeptical.
"The Board of County Commissioners does not buy the fact that launching missiles a mile and a half from houses and schools is safe," county official Chris Lehman said.
Reuters Environment News
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey - An earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale shook part of eastern Turkey on Monday, causing several casualties and damaging buildings.
"Eleven people were injured in Karliova in the tremor and taken to hospitals," said a police official contacted by phone from the eastern province of Bingol.
Three people were earlier reported to have been injured in the Karliova district of northern Bingol. The official said two buildings in the district collapsed by the quake which led cracks on some others.
Anatolian news agency earlier said the tremor struck in the province of Erzurum at 6.14 p.m. (1514 GMT). But local police said the epicentre of the quake was further south, in Bingol, and that there were no casualties in Erzurum.
Officials said it was difficult to get a clear picture of the situation because of problems in communicating with the remote area.
Anatolian quoted deputy Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit as saying a village in Bingol was totally damaged by the quake. "There was no word of loss of life," Ecevit said.
The agency said a rescue team was on the way to the village, and local residents said roads to some settlements were cut off by snow.
The Turkish Red Crescent society sent 200 tents and 600 blankets to the area, it said.
Anatolian said the earthquake was also felt in two other eastern provinces, causing panic among people. It said there was no damage there.