On the Nuclear Train Leaving Prague

Published Date: 12 December 2007

© IAEA Day 1, 09:00 hours: Only armed with his navigational computer, IAEA Safeguards Inspector Jeong Eui Sang drove 4 hours from Vienna to his next assignment in Prague, Czech Republic. He is to verify the shipment to Russia of spent high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuel from a Czech research reactor. 21:00 hours: The last one of hundreds of meetings held over four years to prepare the secret shipment. IAEA Safeguards Inspector Jeong Eui Sang discusses with Czech officials the procedures. This will be the 18th shipment of Russian origin HEU fuel to be returned to Russia under an IAEA Technical Cooperation project that runs with extra-budgetary funding from the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. 22:00 hours: IAEA Safeguards Inspector Jeong Eui Sang starts his manual work by climbing the scaffolding to reach an IAEA surveillance camera. He downloads images from the camera that monitored the hall until today, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. 22:30 hours: Inspectors from the IAEA and the Czech State Office for Nuclear Safety jointly verify that the load in the casks is indeed the one that was so far under their control. 23:00 hours: IAEA Safeguards Inspector Jeong verifies seals that were earlier applied by his inspector colleagues who monitored the loading of the fuel. Czech national inspector Adam Pavlik overviews the process. 23:00 hours: IAEA's Cobra seals can be verified on site. The wire and the seal are photographed at the moment when they are applied. A special camera tells inspector Jeong in an instant whether the seal has been tampered with or not. 23:30 hours: After verifying that the Cobra seals are intact, Mr. Jeong replaces them with metal IAEA seals. They will be sent back to the IAEA's Vienna Headquarters by the Russians after the haul arrives in the Mayak facility, where it will be reprocessed. Midnight: Both IAEA and EURATOM seals assure the casks will not be opened until the cargo reaches its final destination. Day 2, 01:00 hours: Tight security measures are in place. Czech police officers and their sniffer dogs search all the containers for explosives. 01:30 hours: Trucks carrying shipping containers reverse into the storage hall for uploading the casks filled with HEU. 02:00 hours: A crane carefully loads the SKODA VPVR/M casks into shipping containers. These are high capacity casks used for the first time in this ongoing project. In 2006, 63 kg of spent HEU was returned from Uzbekistan in four separate shipments with containers available then, whereas 80 kg of HEU in the new SKODA casks could be carried in one go during this shipment. 02:30 hours: Each cask is labelled according to international transportation regulations. 02:45 hours: Radiation levels are checked. Again and again. The hand-held reader shows no anomaly. And this is a good sign. 03:00 hours: Experts of a Czech transportation company specialized in handling hazardous material secure the casks with anchors. 13:00 hours: The last cask is loaded and secured. Each shipping container houses two casks, bringing the weights of each container up to 28 tonnes. 16:00 hours: Mesice train station near Prague. The shipping containers are loaded on the train. 16:15 hours: For 28 tonnes on rolls, and for 9 days, precision is key! 20:30 hours: A train from the pages of Cold War history will take the nuclear cargo back to Russia. In 1968, at the height of the so-called 'Prague Spring', Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek travelled in this passenger car (seen in the background) to meet Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin on the USSR-Czechoslovak border. This time, the car will carry the security officers who will accompany the train to Russia. 20:52 hours: A sigh of relief, followed by claps and cheers. The train takes eastbound. The IAEA, Russia and the US have so far facilitated similar shipments from Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Libya, Uzbekistan, Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland and Vietnam. Is the Czech Republic now safer? Not only this Central European country, but probably the world is safer, experts say. And there are still dozens of similar missions to complete, before the men and women undertaking this global project can rest. On the Nuclear Train Leaving Prague