MOSCOW -- The United States and Britain have begun a secretive operation to remove nuclear material from the volatile Caucasus nation of Georgia, Western officials say.
The supply of highly-enriched uranium and spent nuclear fuel is stored at a research reactor outside the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. It has been a serious concern for American officials, who feared it could fall into the hands of Chechen gangs, Iran, or another aspiring nuclear power.
The classified operation to remove the nuclear material, which is code-named Auburn Endeavor, also shows that the United States is now prepared to operate in former Soviet republics like Georgia.
When the Clinton administration proposed removing the material two years ago, it hoped to enlist Russian help and make the operation a model of American-Russian cooperation.
But after the Russians failed to make good on promises to accept the material, the United States went ahead with the operation anyway, though Washington did decide to inform Moscow.
The British played a vital role by volunteering to accept the cache, after the administration declined to move it to the United States because of potential challenges from American environmentalists.
Prime Minister Tony Blair approved the plan to store the nuclear material in Britain, reaffirming this to Clinton when he visited Washington in early February. British officials told their American counterparts that London considered the operation important enough to make an exception to its regulations against accepting foreign nuclear material.
The Americans also asked the French to take the material, but were rebuffed.
American military and civilian personnel are now in Tbilisi packing up the supply, which includes 8.8 pounds of highly-enriched uranium and 1.76 pounds of highly-radioactive spent fuel.
This week, U.S. Air Force transports will fly the nuclear cargo to Britain. It will then be taken to the Dounreay nuclear complex, in Scotland, which has the ability to reprocess spent fuel, removing the waste so the uranium can be reused.
Estimates vary about how much material is required to make a nuclear bomb. They depend on the skills of the bomb maker and the size of the explosive.
American officials say the material in Tbilisi, while substantial, would not be enough for a bomb. But private experts say that a skilled bomb maker could use it to make a weapon with a yield equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT.
Virtually all experts, including the Georgians, believe that the nuclear material would be more secure if it was removed from the Caucasus.
The recent arrival of U.S. military transport aircraft in Tbilisi has sparked reports in the Georgian press that the long-stalled effort to remove the nuclear material finally appears to be under way.
The Tbilisi reactor's vulnerability has fed growing concern in the West and in Russia about how to protect the region's supply of nuclear weapons and the nuclear materials in the laboratories, power plants, and institutes spread through the former Soviet Union.
The United States and Russia have publicly embraced the goal of protection. But the Georgian case shows how diplomatic and bureaucratic impediments in the United States and Russia can impede the effort.
Georgia, which enjoys good ties with the West, has never had an interest in keeping the supply or beginning a program to develop nuclear weapons.
"Indeed, we have several kilograms of uranium," President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia said in a 1996 interview. "We need to get rid of it. But we can't do it independently."
The origins of the Tbilisi material go back to the days of Soviet power, when Moscow devoted huge sums to its nuclear complex. The research reactor was built outside Tbilisi in 1959 for Georgia's Institute of Physics.
After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the reactor was shut down because of safety concerns. That pleased environmentalists, but it left Georgia with a problem: what to do with the plant's nuclear material. The reactor used highly-enriched uranium as fuel, which is a valuable component in making nuclear weapons.
Georgia took some steps on its own to reduce its supply of highly-enriched uranium. It sent a small amount to Uzbekistan, which has a similar reactor. But that still left Georgia with a small supply of enriched uranium, as well as a smaller amount of spent fuel that could be refined into weapons-grade ingredients.
Over the years, Georgian officials say they have had many sleepless nights over the nuclear material. According to Georgian officials, the greatest danger occurred during the Georgian civil war in the early 1990s, when the Tbilisi reactor was virtually unprotected.
Georgian physicists were afraid that a paramilitary group might discover the supply and try to steal it. But the roving gangs apparently did now know of the supply or were simply content to steal cars from the reactor's parking lot.
In January 1996, the United States began to get into the act.
Specialists at the U.S. Energy Department sent the White House a classified letter, proposing that Washington work out an arrangement with the Georgians to take the material back to America.
There was a precedent for this type of operation. In 1994, the United States carried out a similar operation in Kazakhstan. Under "Operation Sapphire" more than half a ton of bomb-grade uranium was transported to the nuclear complex at Oak Ridge, Tenn.
But the the State Department was wary about starting an operation in the Russians' backyard without consulting Moscow. Other Clinton administration officials were afraid that taking the small amount of nuclear waste could rile environmentalists in the United States and result in legal challenges.
The once urgent operation was put on a slow track, as the United States sought to persuade the Russians to take the supply.
Confidential discussions were conducted in 1996 when Vice President Al Gore and other senior American officials met with the prime minister at that time, Viktor Chenomyrdin, and his top aides.
In early 1997, Russia's minister of atomic energy, Viktor Mikhailov, publicly promised to take the supply by March 1997. But the three-way negotiations between the United States, the Russians, and the Georgians remained stymied.
One sticking point was what to do with the spent fuel.
The Tbilisi reactor has only 1.76 pounds of spent fuel, which is highly reactive and stored in a cooling pond at the weather-beaten nuclear complex.
Georgia was unsuccessful in finding a nation to take this nuclear waste. During the Soviet era, Georgia shipped its spent fuel to the Russian nuclear complex at Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains.
But that arrangement came to an end after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The last trainload of spent fuel was shipped in March 1991.
The Russians have maintained that their laws prevent them from taking nuclear waste from foreign nations, even though Georgia is a former Soviet republic and its fuel was provided by the Soviet Union.
As the diplomats discussed the problems, the United States arranged for a costly alarm system to be installed at the Tbilisi reactor. Television cameras were stationed there and a wall of bricks was put up in front of the room storing the highly-enriched uranium so that there would be a measure of protection.
But American officials conceded that this was only a stop-gap measure.
A recent assassination attempt against Shevardnadze, in which his armored Mercedes was raked by gun fire, highlighted the potential instability in the country.
So this past fall, the White House began looking for a different plan. After several months of secret discussions with London, the British signaled that they were prepared to help, and a deal was struck to take the material to the Dounreay complex.
As part of the consultations, Clinton has also spoken with Shevardnadze.
Under the plan, American transports have flown from Europe to bring in fork lifts and other equipment to handle the material.
The highly-enriched uranium fuel is being put into special drums.
Packing the spent fuel is more problematic because it is highly radioactive. It has to be placed in a heavy cask, which weighs about 40 tons.
Georgia is to be paid about $125,000 for the material. Transport costs for the United States are about $2 million.
American officials acknowledge that it took a long time to deal with the problem, but insist that their diplomacy was successful.
"It is a successful example of multilateral diplomacy to counter a proliferation threat," said a senior Clinton administration official.
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