After ten years of painstaking planning and meticulous work, Vietnam has been declared free of weapons-grade uranium by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) after an international effort at the Dalat national research center, which was powered by nuclear fuel supplied by Russia.
The removal was the product of an original agreement between Russia and the United States that was designed to prevent theft of the material and its potential use by terrorists from countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungry and Libya.
Experts said 16 kilograms of highly enriched uranium was removed from Vietnam, about nine kilograms short of enough material to make a nuclear weapon. It was removed in two phases – the first completed about six years ago – and taken to Russia for safe keeping.
About 3,000 kilograms of weapons grade uranium is to be removed from around the world by 2017, and nearly all has now been removed from Southeast Asia.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology said the shipment marked the completion of an agreement signed in November 2006, in Hanoi, by President Nguyen Minh Triet and U.S. President George W. Bush, which orchestrated Vietnam’s conversion to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU).
Security experts are fearful that terrorists could build a simple nuclear weapon with 50 to 60 kilograms of enriched uranium and militants have been caught in recent years attempting to buy the material, traditionally used in research reactors.
Sarah Dickerson from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in the U.S. told Radio Australia that Vietnam’s uranium supplies were not enough to make a nuclear weapon.
"But certainly if you took that and combined it with the material from another secondary country, it's something that could be used by terrorists to make a nuclear weapon," Dickerson said.
The weapons-grade uranium will be diluted and reduced to low enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear power reactors. The move will help clear a path for the Vietnamese government which is keen to establish a viable nuclear energy industry.
Dickerson added that Vietnam would still use uranium enriched to less than 20 percent to power their research reactor.
"But that material is considered to be much less attractive by terrorists for use in a nuclear weapon," she said.
Hanoi is considering offers from established nuclear countries and is looking at building between four and eight nuclear reactors. Meetings were held earlier this week with Japanese officials on possible tie-ups and talks with Russia on two plants are well advanced. Vietnam is not expected to have a viable nuclear plant operating until the late 2020s.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.