US expert says West should remove Serb nuclear stocks

WASHINGTON, Mar 14, 2000 -- (Reuters) A stockpile of bomb-grade uranium being stored near Belgrade should be removed by the international community as a safeguard against theft or any attempt by Serbia's government to revive a nuclear weapons programme, a top U.S. proliferation expert said on Monday.

William Potter, a renowned nuclear authority, said nearly 50 kg (110 pounds) of fresh weapons-grade uranium fuel - enough to make several crude atomic bombs - was being stored at a nuclear plant at Vinca, six miles outside Belgrade, and might make a tempting target for theft by terrorists, criminals or even "rogue states."

He cautioned that the former Yugoslavia's deepening pariah status after wars in Bosnia and Kosovo could encourage Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to contemplate restarting a nuclear weapons programme ended in the 1980s.

"Unless action is taken quickly ... a golden nonproliferation opportunity would be missed," Potter, director of the nonproliferation centre at the Monterey Institute of International studies, said in speech on Capitol Hill.

"As long as Yugoslavia remains ... an international pariah, its decision-makers may well conclude that more is to be gained than lost by pursuing a nuclear option."

Potter recommended that the United States and Russia develop a joint initiative, perhaps also involving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under which the fissile material could be bought back from Serbia.

In addition to the weapons-grade uranium, supplied by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, the Vinca nuclear research institute also houses a mothballed reactor, 5,056 fuel elements in aluminum containers and a pool containing spent fuel elements that, if reprocessed, could yield more than five kg (11 pounds) of plutonium."

All the nuclear material at Vinca is stored under IAEA safeguards and NATO carefully avoided bombing the facility during its air campaign against Serbia last year to end repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

However, Potter said the nuclear material stored there was vulnerable to theft by anti-Milosevic elements, rogue military or militia forces, terrorists or criminal groups.

"The security of the fresh highly enriched uranium at Vinca remains suspect because of lax physical protection, the potential for theft by criminal or terrorist groups, and the prospect for state-sanctioned diversion or seizure of the material," Potter said in a recent article in the respected Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

He said Western governments, including the United States, have tended to minimise the nuclear proliferation risk posed by Serbia. But the country still has dozens of physicists, chemists and engineers with "decades-long experience in a broad range of activities related to most aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle" and a smaller number with expertise in nuclear weapons design and processes.

"I would worry about the potential sale of Yugoslav expertise to countries interested in developing weapons of mass destruction," Potter said.

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