The recovery of highly enriched uranium from Chile drew a bunch of attention (ABC Nightline, Time, Associated Press), not only because of the non-proliferation aspects to keep the material out of terrorist hands but also because of the high-security mission was completed amid the turmoil of the devastating earthquake there.
There were a number of components to the mission, including the removal of highly enriched uranium fuel (90 percent U-235) from the RECH-2 research reactor about 30 miles outside Santiago. That was the work that involved three staffers from the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, including Trent Andes, who I spoke with this afternoon by telephone. Andes said their work was done the week of Feb. 22, involving the packaging of fresh fuel (unirradiated) for the trip to Y-12 for storage, and that work was completed before the earthquake hit.
Andes, program manager in the nuclear nonproliferation section at Y-12, said he and others from Y-12 — Todd Hawk and Jimmy Villarreal — participated in the repackaging effort put together by the National Nuclear Security Administration in cooperation with the Chilean officials.
He declined to discuss the amount of material that was brought to Y-12, but he said it arrived in the latter part of March. It was not of U.S. origin or Russian origin, but is considered to be “gap” material of the weapons-grade materials being retrieved as part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.
The fresh fuel bound for Y-12 was aboard the same ship as the irradiated materials bound for the Savannah River Site (where Andes worked for 15 years before coming to Y-12 in 2004), but the two shipments parted aways after arrival at the Port of Charleston. The HEU was brought to Y-12 by truck and eventually will be downblended for non-weapons uses — reactor fuel.
Andes, a 46-year-old mechanical engineer with a UT degree who is a native of Maryville, said it is a privilege to work on programs that reduce the global threat of nuclear terrorism, and he said that is more important to him because of his two young sons. “I hope they can grow up in a world that is safe from nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism,” he said.