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Georgia offers highly enriched uranium for sale

January 7, 1997

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ Stuck with a cache of highly enriched uranium from Soviet times, Georgian officials are offering the radioactive material for sale _ as long as it’s not for military purposes.

``We are open to all proposals, except for those from rogue regimes,″ said Georgy Kharadze, director of Georgia’s Physics Institute. ``We are categorically against selling this fuel to someone who pursues military goals.″

The uranium-235 was used for scientific projects involving a research nuclear reactor built in the late 1950s at the institute just outside Tbilisi, the capital. It was left there when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The Georgian government acknowledges that it wants to get rid of the uranium, but has not released details about possible sales.

Last year, the institute sold about 11 pounds of uranium-235 to Uzbekistan for $20,000, Kharadze said. The institute has about 9.5 pounds of the uranium left _ enough to build a nuclear weapon, according to Shukri Abramidze, head of the institute’s Center for Applied Research.

William Potter, a nuclear expert at the Monterey (Calif.) Institute of International Studies, agreed the Georgian uranium could be used for weapons production.

``The material available in Georgia fits the top end of the line _ highly, highly enriched uranium,″ said Potter, who specializes in the former Soviet Union.

Potter noted that Georgia would be violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it signed, if it sells the highly enriched uranium to any country whose nuclear facilities are not under the full oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency. India, Pakistan and North Korea are among those in that category.

Kharadze denied reports that the institute has been approached by Iran, which is receiving help from Russia to build a nuclear power plant.

The uranium has been the subject of negotiations between Russia and the United States, which both have pledged to thwart possible proliferation of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union.

Washington reportedly has offered to buy the uranium, and Kharadze said ``we are not against″ such a deal.

The United States reached an agreement with Russia in 1992 and 1993 to buy 551 tons of uranium from dismantled nuclear warheads for $12 billion over 20 years. Washington also purchased 1,320 pounds of highly enriched uranium from Kazakstan in a 1994 program code-named Project Sapphire.

Recently, the United States helped install a security system at the Georgian facility, which is located in the restive Caucasus region close to Russia’s rebel republic of Chechnya.

``The new security system is safe and reliable,″ said Zurab Saralidze, the Georgia institute’s deputy director.

President Eduard Shevardnadze’s chief of staff, Peter Mamradze, confirmed there were fears of an attack on the facility. Georgia has been torn by civil and ethnic strife since 1991, and Saralidze said there were two attacks on the institute in 1993. Assailants stole two cars, he said, but the uranium was untouched.

``Because of Soviet-era secrecy, no one even suspected we might have uranium here,″ Saralidze said.

Since the Soviet collapse, there have been numerous reports about the theft of radioactive materials in its former republics, and several people have been arrested in Europe for trying to sell nuclear substances.

The stolen materials, however, apparently were not sufficient to build a nuclear weapon. Russia now has the entire remaining Soviet nuclear arsenal on its territory, and officials insist that no weapons-grade materials ever have disappeared from the country.

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