Bomb in Your Backyard: Securing Plutonium on the Kazakh Steppe

Jerry Davydov
February 12, 2014

Kurchatov, Wikimedia Commons

Kurchatov, Wikimedia Commons

On February 12, 1989, the Soviet Union conducted its last nuclear test at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. In the 25 years since, Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan –  also known as “The Polygon” – has been  transformed from nonproliferation’s biggest nightmare to one its biggest success stories.

Unprecedented cooperation between Kazakhstan, the United States, and Russia resulted in a $100 million, 17-year project to secure hundreds of pounds of plutonium, enough for several nuclear bombs, on the Kazakh Steppe. Given the secrecy of the operation, many have not heard about the circumstances that fostered cooperation between the Cold War rivals, cooperation that on many fronts has since faded.

Legacy and Problem

In the four decades that preceded its last test, the Soviet Union carried out 456 nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in an area roughly five times larger than the US nuclear test site in Nevada.

When Russia pulled out of Semipalatinsk following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly-independent Kazakhstan was largely left to its own devices to manage the sprawling site. Weapons-usable material left over from the Soviet testing program was left unguarded in over 186 tunnels and bore holes across the Kazakh Steppe.  Kazakhstan was going through a period of great uncertainty and found itself in economic dire straits. The hundreds of miles of copper cabling and tracks that crisscrossed the test site provided a lure for many out of work Kazakhs  Familiar with the situation at the test site, residents of the city of Kurchatov and the rural settlements surrounding the testing grounds began scavenging the site in search of metal to sell. In many cases scavengers came within yards of unguarded fissile material, and in some cases breached areas containing plutonium from tests.

Realizing the potential threat of an unguarded nuclear test site, Kazakhstan and the United States, as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), undertook extensive efforts to seal the portals of the testing tunnels and eliminate the Soviet nuclear testing infrastructure. By 2000, Kazakhstan and the United States had sealed 181 test tunnels and 13 test shafts at Semipalatinsk. Although this effort helped to mitigate the problem, it did not solve it. The tunnel portals were sealed but the plutonium within the tunnels was left inside.

Plugging up the Holes

Despite efforts to seal up test tunnels, the majority of the test site remained wide open. In January 1998, a Kazakh scientist alerted Dr. Siegfried Hecker, the retiring Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, that the US-led effort to seal the testing tunnels was being circumvented by the scavengers. Convinced by his own research experience, Dr. Hecker feared that scavengers or terrorists could recover the plutonium residues from the area surrounding the site. Within a few months, Dr. Hecker made the journey to Kazakhstan. At Semipalatinsk, he found no guards, no fencing, a lone guard gate, and long empty trenches where copper cabling had once been buried. He observed that although the portals of many tunnels were sealed, scavengers had simply drilled in behind the barriers and entered the tunnels. What was first believed to be a few scavengers with pickaxes and shovels turned out to be major industrial operation.

Leveraging friendships with Russian and Kazakh scientists familiar with the test site, Dr. Hecker set up a series of meetings to get a better picture of the situation on the ground. Although reluctant at first, soon the scientists revealed that the situation was worse than first believed. Carrying this information Dr. Hecker briefed U.S. officials and laid the ground work for a series of operations at Semipalatinsk. These operations, codenamed Groundhog, Matchbox, Nomad, and Golden Eagle, were carried out under the auspices of CTR and worked to secure the plutonium located at Semipalatinsk in order to keep it from falling into malicious hands.

Initially, cooperation between the United States and Russia was slow; Cold War distrust remained.  Many of the problems did not center around operations but the plutonium itself. Russian officials were suspicious that their American counterparts would use the plutonium clean-up effort as a means of gathering intelligence about Russian nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Russian officials were concerned that the United States may back out of the process before remediation could be completed, leaving the area more dangerous than it had been initially. Finally, Russian officials favored simply securing the plutonium on site, whereas the United States favored its return to Russia.

Russian officials preferred a step-by-step process in which one area would be identified and dealt with before work in additional areas was begun. Conversely, Kazakh officials, who were deeply concerned about the environmental degradation associated with the Soviet nuclear testing program, were very eager to begin the project. The project may have remained at an impasse were it not for a long record of scientist-to-scientist cooperation established in the waning days of the Cold War. These working-level relationships created a foundation of trust that eventually worked its way up to the political level.

The story went untold until 2012, when during the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, President Obama, President Nazarbayev, and President Medvedev stood together and announced the completion of the 17-year operation. Later in 2012, officials from Kazakhstan, the United States, and Russia came together at the test site and dedicated a three-sided stone monument that simply reads, “The world has become safer.”

Mission Successful?

By leveraging unofficial channels and emphasizing the scientist-to-scientist connection, Kazakhstan, the United States, and Russia were able to secure large amounts of plutonium, reducing the threat that it could fall into the wrong hands.

Although an overwhelming success, the world cannot close the book on Semipalatinsk just yet. Serious questions remain about the long term security of Semipalatinsk and the completion of the project. While efforts have greatly reduced the risk of terrorists acquiring the plutonium at Semipalatinsk, they have not eliminated the possibility of a terrorist group acquiring the materials.

As plutonium remains viable for weapons use for millennia, security of the site is critical to the long-term success of any operations. Will Kazakhstan remain interested in the surveillance and maintenance of the site? Currently dozens of cameras, sensors, and drones focus on the most sensitive areas at Semipalatinsk. This system is largely funded through CTR. If the United States decides to withdraw funding, will Kazakhstan continue surveillance? Furthermore, licensed mining operations are being carried out in the proximity of some of the secured areas. If Kazakhstan discontinues surveillance, are there credible assurances that one of the mining companies will not breach a sealed location?

Finally, nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk went on for forty years. No one is certain whether historical information about events that occurred in the 1950s was adequate to inform scientists in the 1990s and 2000s. Is it possible that Russia does not have complete information or has not shared everything with Kazakhstan? Have all the most vulnerable sites been dealt with?

Recognizingthe dangerous legacy of nuclear testing worldwide, on September 8, 2006 representatives of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan met at Semipalatinsk to sign a treaty establishing a Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone. The Treaty formally entered-into-force on March 21, 2009.

Although the operations at Semipalatinsk have made the world a safer place, it is important that the international community remain vigilant to the dangers posed by nuclear terrorism and more importantly, not forget the legacy of nuclear testing worldwide.

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