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US helps Ukraine return weapons-grade uranium

WASHINGTON -- In a secret operation to secure nuclear material, the United States has helped Ukraine send to Russia enough uranium to build two atomic bombs.

This week's removal of more than 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of highly enriched uranium followed a pledge by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to get rid of all of his country's highly enriched uranium by April 2012. The material will be blended down in Russia, rendering it useless for bomb making.

Details of the operation were provided to The Associated Press by the National Nuclear Safety Administration.

Yanukovych agreed to give up the uranium in a deal announced at a nuclear security summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in April. As an incentive, the United States is providing replacement low-enriched uranium that can be used for Ukraine's research reactors.

The summit deal also has the United States building a US$25 million “neutron source facility” nuclear research project for Ukraine, the administration said. The facility will be able to produce 50 different types of medical isotopes, using only low-enriched uranium.

The U.S. nuclear administration's chief, Thomas D'Agostino, called the uranium removal operation an important step toward Obama's goal of securing the world's nuclear material within four years. He praised Ukraine for helping ensure its bomb-making material would not fall “into the wrong hands.”

Ukraine gave a major boost to arms control in 1994 when it agreed to surrender the nuclear weapons it inherited after the Soviet Union's collapse.

The removal operation completed Thursday involved 21 specially designed casks for the uranium to be flown on five flights from three cities. The operation was delayed for days by ice storms in Ukraine. The U.S. also helped deliver some of the replacement fuel to Ukraine.

“This may have been the most complicated operation NNSA has done in recent years,” said Andrew Bieniawski, the U.S. agency's associate deputy administrator for global threat reduction.

The uranium came from three research facilities, in Kiev, Sevastopol and Kharkiv. The U.S. also helped Ukraine remove a slightly larger amount of spent uranium by rail in May. An additional amount of uranium remains in Ukraine, but the U.S. said the material was on track to be removed by the April 2012 deadline.

About 3.5 million pounds (1.6 million kilograms) of highly enriched uranium and 500,000 pounds (226,800 kilograms) of bomb-grade plutonium remain in the world, according to Harvard University's Belfer Center. That material could be used to build as many as 200,000 nuclear weapons, or about 8 times the world's current stockpile of 23,360 warheads.

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 US helps Ukraine return weapons-grade uranium 
This undated handout photo provided by the National Nuclear Safety Administration shows a container loaded onto a plane, in Sevastopol, Ukraine. In a secret operation to secure nuclear material, the United States has helped Ukraine send to Russia enough uranium to build two atomic bombs. (AP)

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