Alert over Serbs' nuclear stores

By Paul Lashmar

27 February 2000

Atomic bomb grade nuclear material held in Serbia poses a serious threat to international security, according to nuclear experts. Stored just six miles outside Belgrade is enough nuclear material to make several crude nuclear weapons with a yield equivalent to the Nagasaki bomb. The experts warn "of the potential for theft by criminal or terrorist groups, and the prospect for state-sanctioned diversion or seizure of the material".

The warning comes in the latest edition of the highly respected Bulletin of Atomic Scientists from Professor William C Potter, a top American proliferation expert, and two former senior scientists in the Yugoslavian nuclear weapons programme, Djuro Milajanic and Ivo Slaus.

The three experts say: "Yugoslavia's greatest weapons asset today" is its nearly 50kg of fresh, weapons-grade uranium fuel and 10kg of low-irradiated highly enriched uranium. The nuclear material is stored on an internationally approved secure site, the Vinca nuclear research institute, near the Danube river. The institute houses a mothballed research reactor provided by the Soviet Union. The fuel, enriched to 80 per cent uranium 235, was provided by the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s, and consists of 5,056 fuel elements in sealed aluminium containers.

Vinca also has a storage pool containing spent fuel elements that, if reprocessed, could yield more than 5kg of plutonium.

During the Kosovan War last year Nato was very careful to avoid bombing Vinca. Several warnings appeared on the internet from Serbian environmentalists who were alarmed that the bombing of the Vinca institute and its reactor would have contaminated much of the Balkans.

All of the nuclear material at Vinca is stored under safeguards imposed by the International Atomic Energy Authority.

But the three experts say that the security of the highly enriched uranium at Vinca is questionable because of lax physical protection.

They add that it is hard to judge how easy it would be for the Serbian regime to make nuclear weapons. But they warn that Yugoslavia has the expertise to make a bomb and that Vinca may present an attractive target for terrorists with grievances against the Milosevic regime, heavily armed and well-financed criminal groups, or rogue military or militia elements.

Original article