Vinca

Published Date: 10 June 2006

© IAEA The Vinca nuclear research reactor was shut down 22 years ago.  But it's left a legacy of nuclear fuel and radioactive waste that's too dangerous to keep there. This is what the fuel elements look like.  But they contain a lethal radioactive cocktail of plutonium and high enriched uranium wastes. The fuel pictured can be held because it is 'fresh'.  It was never used to power the reactor so it is barely radioactive. An IAEA inspection team is at the nuclear facility to check that no material is missing.  They regularly inspect the site. Serbian staff lift covers to access the spent fuel pond.  The nuclear waste simmers in the murky water beneath where it has been cooling for the past three decades.  Serbia's mission: to get rid of it, for safety and security reasons. In today's climate, experts say the safety and security of research reactors like the one at Vinca is an international concern, posing potential transboundary threats. The IAEA has intensified work with Serbia and other countries to pull together the resources to raise safety and security levels at Vinca. Steps now are geared to removing the old fuel from the site - a costly, complex, and so far largely unfunded operation. The sound of Geiger counters crackle and beep, as the IAEA inspectors go about their job, inspecting the spent fuel. It simmers in stagnant water where it has been cooling for the past three decades, but leaking radioactive materials into the water. Fears are the contamination could escape outside via the ventilation system or the water table. A village of 4 000 residents is next to the Vinca site. Dobrila Markovic owns a local shop five minutes' drive away. She's lived near the nuclear facility all her life. "I'm not worried about it now," says the mother of three.  She has friends and relatives who work there.   "But during the war, I was scared that the facility might be bombed and spread radiation." There are other hazards at Vinca.  The IAEA team also wants to inspect two corroding hangars storing radioactive waste at Serbia's Nuclear Institute for Nuclear Science. The rickety sheds store a mish-mash of low- and medium level radioactive waste. The potential for contamination threatens the local environment at the Institute. Inside is over 40 years of accumulated nuclear waste from the former Yugoslavia.  Its contents include contaminated grass clippings from the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine, to depleted uranium ammunition used by NATO in 1999. Radioactive sources inside the hangar. The IAEA is working with Serbian authorities to upgrade security at the site and eliminate the environmental danger.  Two new secure hangars will be built to house the waste. IAEA inspectors take samples of some materials inside.  Part of the problem is not knowing exactly what kind of radioactive material is inside the hangars. A first step is to determine the exact content of what is in the hangars.  The IAEA's technical cooperation program is supporting Vinca to build  'waste processing and storage facilities' to properly account for, and package and store the waste. Serbia's goal: to strip Vinca of its dangerous old nuclear fuel, dismantle its ageing research reactor, and secure vulnerable radioactive materials that threaten people and the environment. © IAEA