Jim Sprinkle Interview

Lab-to-Lab: US-Russian Lab-to-Lab Collaboration Story [Archived]

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Jim Sprinkle in conversation with Sig Hecker & Alla Kassianova

January 18, 2018, Los Alamos, NM

SH: How would you describe your role in the FSU?

JS: We were tasked to help the newly independent States (NIS) establish relations with the IAEA … Unlike Russia or the Soviet Union, the NIS were considered non-weapons States and had to declare their activities with nuclear material to the IAEA and setup safeguards agreements. Whereas the oversight from Moscow had emphasized production quotas, the IAEA inspectors wanted to examine a complete listing of all nuclear materials, including locations and quantities, and might select a few items from the inventory listing to be shown to them and perhaps even be re-measured to verify the information that had been provided. This was a vastly different expectation for the facilities in the NIS.

SH: Let me take us back to the beginning. How did you get to Los Alamos? Give us a little bit of that history and how you got into the radiation detection business.

JS: I studied nuclear physics and radiation detection at the University of Rochester. After that, I joined the nuclear safeguards group at LANL as a staff member in 1978. That group was developing nondestructive (NDA) measurements for U and Pu to be used in domestic and international safeguards. I joined Jack Parker, Doug Reilly, Ron Augustson, Howard Menlove, Roddy Walton and others, who had done the initial work. But plenty of R&D opportunities remained to improve the basic measurements, as well as to develop calibrations for existing instruments applied to new or different materials that needed measurement. I spent about 15 years from 1978 to 1993 developing and improving nondestructive measurements of U and Pu.

AK: So it was your personal interest that you stepped in to work in the NIS?

JS: Yes, after 15 years working in the lab developing NDA, I was looking for a change. This was a new interesting program and Arnie Hakkila was looking for resources. I began working with Kazakhstan and Greg Sheppard began working with Ukraine. Of course, Oak Ridge, PNNL, INL, and Sandia also contributed resources. I think Belarus was the other NIS with a significant program, but there were concerns about going there.

SH: That’s correct. Those 3 countries had larger programs and the other ones were pretty small. So, let me ask, at that point, were you working for the IAEA?

JS: No – this was the US funded NIS MPC&A program. You may remember they reallocated $400 million of DOD funding over to DOE to address this. A US led international program to help the newly independent countries setup the proper legal arrangements with the IAEA and help get their nuclear activities and nuclear material in good order. I was a Los Alamos employee funded by DOE.

SH: Did the US have similar efforts in all 14 of the NIS?

JS: No. The IAEA has different criteria for States with less than one significant quantity (SQ) of nuclear material [one SQ for Pu is 8 kg if it contains less than 80% Pu-238; is 25 kg of U-235 for HEU (≥20% U-235); is 75 kg U-235 for LEU (<20% U-235; is 10 t for natural U; or 20 t for depleted U or Th[1]]. They expend much more effort on facilities or States with more than one SQ. The eleven States with small programs received much less attention from the IAEA and consequently from the US support program. By the way, Ulba also had over 1 SQ of metallic Th stored onsite when we started going there. I think the FSU had made preparations for using a Th based reactor fuel cycle at some point.

SH: At that point, and throughout that whole time, you were employed by Los Alamos or the IAEA?

JS: I was employed by Los Alamos, funded by the DOE NIS MPC&A program.

SH: So, you were working directly then for the DOE. Were you actually stationed in Washington?

JS: No, I worked out of Los Alamos. I believe Greg Sheppard worked in Washington for a few years on the Ukraine part of the NIS program with George Kuzmycz, but I worked exclusively out of Los Alamos. This was during the initial program when Washington provided the funding but the program and technical management as well as the accounting was handled at the laboratories. And then as Washington came up to speed and staffed up, Washington took a more active role in managing.

SH: It turns out, that’s covered in great detail in the “Doomed to Cooperate” book, particularly from the Russian side. As you know, I sent Mark Mullen back to Washington where he was a technical advisor to Charlie Curtis, Deputy Secretary of Energy. So, I got Mark to write up the Russia MPC&A story and his piece is one of the best pieces in the book because nobody else had their fingers in it the way that Mark did. So how was your interaction with Mark?

JS: We had very little overlap. Partly because there was too much to do, and partly because these programs were run out of different offices in Washington. We were aware of the other programs, but no coordination existed between them.

SH: Different offices in DOE?

JS: Yes, different programs run by different offices in DOE.

SH: And was there interaction with the IAEA?

JS: Oh yes. Now not with the Russian side, they had almost no interaction. But for the NIS, plenty of interaction. At first we had an IAEA inspector accompany us on in-country trips. But the job was too big for the IAEA to be able to maintain that extensive an effort or participation, so later on we kept them informed and had periodic meetings in Vienna, maybe twice a year. Once they understood what we were doing with these facilities, they pretty much just let us get on with it. I think they wanted to ensure we were following their accepted protocols where possible.

A major difference between the Russia MPC&A program and the NIS program was that the effort for the NIS program was supposed to be short term, last maybe 5 years, just to help these new States get started on relations with the IAEA – once relations with the IAEA were underway, they would then be on their own. Whereas I think it was always expected in Washington that the Russian MPC&A program would be bigger and last longer – after all, Russia ended up with the weapons and most of the nuclear material.

AK: Did it actually happen in five years?

JS: Well yes and no … The countries established the legal arrangements and underwent inspections by the IAEA in that time frame, but many sites needed additional assistance and that assistance was pretty much taken up over the longer term by the previously existing US program of technical assistance to the IAEA.

In Kazakhstan, we were initially allowed much greater access to the Ulba uranium plant than to other facilities. After we gained some credibility and showed we were in fact helping the facility and the State reports to the IAEA, we were allowed more access to the other facilities and eventually worked on the huge amount of used fuel at the BN-350 reactor in Aqtau. Naturally that effort in the BN-350 took longer than five years.

AK: Why was the used fuel so important?

JS: While this fuel was no longer useful for the reactor, having been used or spent to produce power, it contained plutonium of very high Pu-239 content – what some people called ivory grade plutonium – and some of this used fuel had been out of the reactor cooling for sufficient time that it was no longer considered self protecting – what some people said could be ‘easily separated in a bathtub’. Of course, as Sig knows, it’s not really that easy to do unless you are an expert and ignore safety protocols.

SH: So take us through Aqtau. Describe it just a little bit.

JS: When we started going to Aqtau, the city had a population of about one or two hundred thousand people with over 90% unemployment for over a year. They were in sorry shape. One DOE person familiar with the Russian program visited Aqtau and would never go back, he said it was easily worse than conditions in Russia. They endure a tough winter and a brutal summer that far north next to the Caspian Sea. The port was closed. The railroad was hardly functional. Running water was intermittent. It was very difficult to move goods or food into the city, and they had no money. They all had gardens to grow their own food. We were amazed they still showed up for work!

The BN-350 sodium cooled fast breeder reactor had run for 20 or so years and been shut down, which took away a significant local source of electricity, desalinization of water and heating. They had over 2000 spent fuel assemblies in the reactor cooling pool. Most of the fuel was from the 20 years of operation. Fast breeders produce plutonium with very high Pu-239, typically burning 10% or so of the heavy metal when fully spent. One early question was how to place tamper indicating devices (seals) on the pool to be able to detect whether anybody had accessed the pool. Did I mention this was a 1/3 scale sized test reactor that had a hot cell and full fuel assembly disassembly capability in the same building as the reactor? John Lestone and Parrish Staples designed a neutron measurement instrument and measured every used fuel assembly. Jim Halbig led a team which designed and installed an unattended monitoring system that facilitated IAEA inspections. Some of these problems had never been successfully addressed before. The team did some impressive work in Aqtau.

SH: And the guy who was the chief engineer at the BN-350 was Vladimir Shkolnik, did you guys run into him?

JS: Oh yeah. He became minister, he was Timur Zhantikin’s boss for a while. Timur was and still is, I think, director of their nuclear regulatory agency. Shkolnik was very knowledgeable technically.

SH: Shkolnik was an ethnic Russian, I think he came from NIKIET. He worked at the BN-350 and then he stayed in Kazakhstan and moved up the ladder and headed various ministries a number of times. And he was finally out as minister, but he’s still in the nuclear business, still influential.

JS: He was a good guy to work with, and very astute politically too.

SH: In terms of safeguarding their nuclear materials, was plutonium the principal focus?

JS: Yes. The plutonium at the BN-350 was of more interest to the US to safeguard than the LEU at Ulba. But the IAEA considered both to be important, as quantities of both exceeded one SQ at these sites in Kazakhstan.

As for safeguards, while the facilities had pieces of what we consider a modern material control and accountability system (MC&A system), they did not have a unified system readily available for audit or inspection. So our task was to facilitate communications with the IAEA in determining what nuclear material they had and how to report it, as well as to help setup a more transparent system of record keeping that could be easily and quickly inspected. While they usually had reasonable measurements of their feed and product, the written records were distributed among many locations across the facility. They had significant unmeasured inventory. And their understanding of the quantities of nuclear material in their scrap and waste, as well as in their process holdup was incomplete. Perhaps it shouldn’t be in the record, but it was not unlike the way things were in many places in the world when I started working in this field in 1978.

SH: There is nothing wrong with putting that in the record. I myself at various times have said that in 1978, my interest was not MPC&A, my interest was plutonium research. And as for this business of physical protection, measurements and accounting, I was not happy with a lot of those new rules because we were trying to get work done and it slowed us down. I didn’t get that appreciation until I became the Los Alamos lab director. So when did you first travel to one of these countries?

JS: I think it was the fall of 1994. I traveled to Kazakhstan with Arnie Hakkila as part of a team of perhaps 12 people. As you well know, personal relations were very important in this effort. An important component of Arnie’s participation was that he had gone before and established a personal connection with crucial personnel from their side. I think there were two from DoD on this trip, two interpreters, and eight people with a variety of MPC&A experience. Seven of those were from the national labs, one was from DOE HQ. We visited Timur in the capital Almaty, and three other sites: a research reactor just outside Almaty, the Ulba LEU fuel fabrication plant in Ust Kamenogorsk and the research reactors at Semipalatinsk. We did not visit any of the weapons testing facilities in Semipalatinsk. And there was a problem with transportation into Aqtau, to visit the BN-350, so that was dropped from the itinerary.

SH: What was your focus in going into Kazakhstan at that point?

JS: It was essentially a meet and greet visit to get an introduction to the people and the facilities. They had no idea why we were there, and we were all but the first non-FSU people many of them had encountered. Except for Arnie, who had visited there earlier and established some connections. In addition to translating, the interpreters did a lot of explaining – to help both sides clear up misunderstandings and confusion about who wanted what and why. I was surprised to learn that some nuclear facilities in Kazakhstan had English interpreters, in fact Ulba had several.

In summary, both sides agreed to further exchanges, which meant the US would travel there. On subsequent trips we did a lot of training, similar to the basic MC&A training LANL has offered to US facilities and the IAEA for the last several decades. It included everything from basic accounting to advanced statistical tools, and addressed measurements and measurement control also.

AK: Measurement control?

JS: Measurement control is terminology we use to encompass several activities that assess and document how well measurements are performed. All measurements have an error or uncertainty associated with them and we try to minimize that uncertainty and to quantify it rigorously. As part of its inspection protocols, the IAEA assesses the quality of the measurement control. One might say that sometimes more effort is put into understanding the measurement control and measurement uncertainty than into the measurement itself.

While the Soviet academicians understood the concepts, they had not been put into actual practice in the Ulba facility by the workers onsite. In fact, the work we did with applying statistics to measurement control may have been one of the first times many of the staff at Ulba had seen a practical application of statistical tools and been expected to use them, report results and defend the results to someone like an IAEA inspector.

SH: What about physical protection?

JS: Los Alamos had the lead on MC&A, but physical protection (PP) was initially addressed by Sandia, then later by Oak Ridge. We observed a couple of interesting things about the facility PP. First, the facility and local KGB manager were of the opinion that they knew more about PP than Sandia did, at least for the first several visits. Second, when we were escorted by the facility head for PP, who we guessed was KGB, we breezed through the site and building access controls. Later on, when the PP team went on different schedules/tours from the MC&A team, and we no longer enjoyed the company of the facility head for PP, the MC&A team saw a more rigorous approach to site and facility access control. It was clear that the high-level managers and senior technical staff could bypass rules and protocols in the Soviet society. That was a difficult thing to address and try to change.

I should also point out that while the IAEA values good PP, it is understood to be under the control of the State and therefore is not considered useful for independent IAEA verification of nuclear material or activities. This concept was also a challenge to communicate to the NIS participants.

AK: Was their accounting good?

JS: I would suggest they did not use accounting before we arrived, at least not in the sense that we use the term in the US or in the IAEA. They did not have the capability to provide reports or even summary reports concerning their nuclear material holdings that could be reviewed by an independent party.

Their estimates of measurement uncertainty were often optimistic and unjustified. At Ulba, we worked extensively to improve their measurement control and help implement a real-time nuclear material accounting system.

AK: You mentioned unmeasured inventory …

At a facility, what happens is that you lose material, that is you get so much in as feed and you get less out as product. You’re losing it, you can ask the facility staff can you give me any hints about where you think it’s going? Of course, they point to the waste bins. Ok, how can you make an assessment of this? And narrow it down to which of the primary culprits.

But unless you have a good accounting system which compares feed to product quantities, you don’t know whether you lose some or where it might be. We went through on the second or third trip with a portable sodium iodide gamma ray detector. And they had these elevator things where they move powder from one floor to another, and they were coated with two or three centimeters thick oxide. They mixed the binder with the oxide so it’s nice and sticky, and they used an elevator to take it up three floors and then it would come down through the process, press it into pellets. It’s sticky, it’s going to stick to anything it touches, like cookie dough. So, there was one and a half tons, I estimated, in that elevator. In a three by three or four-foot rectangular pipe going up thirty feet. While the facility knew it wasn’t spotless in there, they had no idea it contained that much LEU pellet material.

SH: What exactly was the material?

JS: It was oxide LEU, mixed with a binder to be pressed into pellets. Ulba’s primary nuclear function was they made over half the low-enriched fuel pellets for all the Soviet reactors within the FSU…(note: The site also contained a Be plant and a Ta plant and machine building.)

On the other hand, we found their calculations for the spent fuel from the BN-350 to be better than anything the US could calculate from the reactor operating histories. They claimed this was because experts in Russia had destructive analysis from multiple spent fuel pins, but the US was never granted access to those data.

AK: So, how much collaboration did you have with the Kazakhstani people in this field? Did you include them in your team, or were they just present?

JS: This is difficult to answer…

AK: Why?

JS: Initially, except for Timur Zhantikin, head of the Kazakhstani nuclear authority, most of the people we dealt with were ethnic Russians, not Kazakhstani. They lived and worked in Kazakhstan, and after independence they were offered the choice to become citizens, to return to Russia, or to remain as expats. Initially, most of the managers and production staff were ethnic Russians, very few ethnic Kazakhs had the education or skill set to work at these nuclear facilities. But the facility workers and managers were part of our team. We worked really hard to enable them to assume these roles and responsibilities themselves, to allow them to perform these duties without eternal US assistance. In fact, I think much of the success of the program was due to buy-in from influential personnel at both Ulba and Aqtau – where most of the US effort was dedicated.

For example, a floor supervisor at Ulba, Boris Kuznetsov, first identified as a crucial player by Arnie, worked very hard to understand what we were trying to sell them on, and figured out how MC&A could help him run the facility better. He was very influential in getting us staff support inside the facility and getting the facility to implement modern accounting and measurement procedures. He later confided to us that by using these safeguards MC&A concepts, he could increase his production of pellets using fewer staff than had previously been required. A little nugget that we heard after we’d been there several years was “if you know where your nuclear material is, you can run the process better.” If you know whether it’s in that pot or that pot, or if it got stuck there, and we gave them a lot of tools to be able to do that. They could reduce the amount of on-the-floor storage in the process, and we were told that, using some of our methods, they could run the plant with half as many people. As they’re learning that you’ve got to sell this stuff and break even to turn a profit, there’s a huge difference in terms of cutting your staff cost in half.

SH: You imply there were other participants than the US and Kazakhstan.

JS: Yes there were. I’ve mentioned the IAEA was an active participant. In addition, Sweden sent experts on several trips to Ulba, as they had experience with interactions with the IAEA as a non-weapons country with fuel fabrication facilities. I also know that Japan had interactions with Semipalatinsk with reactor R&D. There may have been others, but I don’t recall. I do know that several countries observed the proceedings and were interested but felt that the US had the deep wallet and they were wary their contributions might be overlooked in the long run. They were sensitive to being valued for any contribution they made.

SH: So Jim, I’m curious. I got very close to the Russian MPC&A program because I was over there myself many times. And so, I know where the motivation came from as to what to try to do in Russia, but I’m much less familiar with the program you were in. For example, how did you decide what facilities to work with? What were the objectives? What sort of working relationships did you have?

JS: We started from the IAEA perspective of these facilities. We knew that Kazakhstan would establish relations with the IAEA, and that subsequently the facilities would have to provide information for Kazakhstan to provide to the IAEA concerning their nuclear material and nuclear activities. In short, the IAEA endeavors to verify claims and reports concerning all activities in the world that include nuclear material. They focus on facilities with more than one SQ. Locations with less than one SQ receive less attention. Locations with more than one SQ of plutonium receive more attention than those with more than one SQ of LEU.

Our objective was to help these facilities understand this different approach to oversight and to assist them in providing the necessary response. Our long-term objective was to help them become self-sufficient in reporting to the IAEA.

So, our focus really was trying to get to a position where the IAEA and the country would work together just like the IAEA does with all the other countries they work with, so the U.S. steps out of the picture. But it was a much more difficult job, and some of it required significant resources like in Aqtau, to repackage and move the fuel.

SH: That money wound up coming through the Nunn-Lugar CTR program, the U.S. paying. So, there was coordination. If we needed big money, just like Semipalatinsk, we went into Nunn-Lugar. So, Jim, that’s interesting.

JS: Other countries were involved too. In Ulba, there was Sweden. Japan was involved in Semipalatinsk, they had some criticality safety issues they wanted to study.

SH: The Japanese sponsored research at the Semipalatinsk reactors, specifically for nuclear reactor safety. That’s how you mean they were involved, but they weren’t involved in the safeguarding aspects. How about Sweden?

JS: Sweden was involved in the safeguarding aspects. They came in, and they had experience being a non-weapons country with reactors under Agency safeguards. Also fuel fabrication, low enriched uranium activities. They were a small program, and the U.S. was spending more on one facility than their whole program for the year. We interacted with them a few times, but, again, they had to go back to their country and demonstrate that they got some credit from spending their money.

SH: So, they spent their own money?

JS: Yes. They spent their own money, and then they had to try to find a niche where the U.S. wasn’t doing something, so they could say, “We did this and should get credit.” While the US seemed to be providing the bulk of the funding, I remember the IAEA holding meetings to coordinate efforts from the donor countries. And I’m guessing there were probably at least five countries who participated. Some gave primarily advice to the IAEA, but many also visited sites in the NIS and provided resources.

SH: What did you consider success?

JS: Success was defined when Kazakhstan interacted with the IAEA in similar fashion to other States that had similar nuclear activities. Furthermore, when US support was transferred to the existing US program of technical support to the IAEA, our primary reason to exist had been addressed. We had cordial, close relationships with both the IAEA and the facility staff. Generally working together as a multi-disciplinary team.

Another measure of success was hearing from the facility staff that improved MC&A also enabled them to reduce staff to accomplish the job or that they could make the process run better, because that implied they saw inherent value in MC&A and would justify it for the business benefits it delivered.

AK: So did you interact on a personal level at any of these places?

JS: Yes. We became good friends in many cases. For example, they took us out for sightseeing excursions when we stayed over the weekend and they guided us to the restaurants with better sanitation and better food. Sightseeing outside when it’s December in Ust-Kamenogorsk or July in Aqtau without running water readily available in the hotel was shall we say interesting, but there were a lot of personal interactions. There was one time they took us to a hockey game. I think they were playing a team from Korea. That was interesting. I think some of our people helped get their kids into US colleges and a few people married Kazakhstani nationals and brought them back to the US.

In fact, they got comfortable enough that I remember occasions where they asked, ‘what do you do in your facilities?’ or ‘do you really do this MC&A stuff in your US facilities? And they trusted the answers. We had enough credulity that they believed us to be honest.

SH: So Jim, in that respect, did we bring people from some of these facilities over here to show them? In the Russia program we did.

JS: Yes we did. Hastings Smith had the massive training exercises, bringing Russian folks every month or two, in groups. But we also brought people from Kazakhstan, multiple times. It was interesting to show them actual measurement situations built out of concealed standard reference materials. The look on their faces when we disassembled the equipment to show the packaged standards was priceless.

SH: The final point I want to get to here is that, much like in the Russian MPC&A program, where you had people like Mark Mullen who relied on the laboratories to identify the problems and to develop the personal relationships in country with Russians, in Kazakhstan, was it similar?

JS: Absolutely. The labs put the boots on the ground, established credibility and identified concerns – then communicated back to contacts in Washington like George Kuzmycz, Garry Tittemore or John Gerrard (I guess we burned through a bunch of politicos) who had to make the sale to congress and HQ in order to obtain and maintain funding.

Maybe because our program was smaller, maybe because of the personnel involved, I think we might have had less acrimony or competition than the Russian program.

SH: From what we’ve covered, I’d guess most people have no appreciation for the amount of material that was there and the size of this job.

JS: Maybe not. After they pulled the nuclear weapons out of Kazakhstan, Ulba still had the capacity to produce thousands of tons of LEU pellets per year. They had hundreds of full UF6 4-ton cylinders and hundreds of 1.4-ton crates of manufactured LEU fuel pellets onsite as well as hundreds of large uranyl nitrate containers. As an aside, an indication of the size of these facilities, we know the IAEA got very concerned about moving some 75-100 kg of HEU fuel from one of the test reactors in Kazakhstan to Ulba a few years ago because from an accounting perspective that HEU was just a drop in the bucket to potentially lose track of in the huge amount of LEU onsite. And then of course Aqtau … Aqtau had thousands of kg of very attractive spent fuel in non-self-protecting easily-transported fuel assemblies.

SH: So, Jim, as you look back at your Kazakhstan adventures, what’s your sense now, and how do you view those?

JS: Well, I think that, well, it’s obvious in hindsight, but I think there were a lot more similarities between us and them as a people, as a culture, in terms of you’re born, you don’t have any control over where you’re born and what political system you’re born under. But there were a lot of common concerns, you worry about your family. I didn’t share with you that the first couple of years we went into Kazakhstan, you never saw babies. They stopped having babies for a couple of years. Things were that bad. After a few years, then you started seeing them again. The country had turned a corner. They worried about food on the table, your kids having a successful life, those kinds of things. And if you stop and think about it, it’s kind of obvious. An awful lot of similarities. So maybe I have a little more empathy for things your government might be doing to you, which you may or may not like, which we may be getting a taste of right now. But, yes, I think it was a time and a place when we could go in and make a difference.

SH: Jim, I hope you feel good about what you did over there.

JS: Yes, I do feel good, and I think we made a difference. It did a lot of good. And I think we made the Agency’s life possible, in terms of their modest annual budget and over seven hundred reactors and a thousand facilities all over the world that they have to monitor.

SH: Jim, when we put this together, the part that you’ve told us today that’s very different from anything that we have in the book is this connection to IAEA. I’d like to make sure that that really comes out. If you can read that in the book, you’ll see a few things that are different than what your experience was, how effectively you worked with the other labs. For example, in the MPC&A piece or the IPP program piece, you’ll see that there was constant tension among the labs. Because the dollars were big, and there were several of the non-weapons labs that wanted a piece of that action and had some capabilities, so there was tension. There was much more tension between the labs and DOE, and then there was almost no mention of IAEA. So, these things are very different, and it should really useful that we bring that out because I don’t think it’s captured anywhere else.

JS: I’ve been thinking about this. I think the MPC&A part, where the U.S. stepped up and said, “We’re going to connect these countries to the IAEA,” and the IAEA perspective is really the big difference. The PP issues may have been similar between the Russian and NIS programs.

The US support program to the IAEA is still working on some of these NIS safeguards issues. All in all, I think we did a good job under difficult circumstances in Kazakhstan and our joint US/IAEA/Kazakh teams made a significant and valuable contribution to world nonproliferation.

[1] IAEA Safeguards Glossary (2001 Edition), International Nuclear Verification Series 3, Vienna (2001). http://www-pub.iaea.org/books/IAEABooks/6663/IAEA-Safeguards-Glossary

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