The Human Dimension to Kazakhstan’s Plutonium Mountain

April 24, 2023
Sig Hecker

The following is an excerpt from the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.

As we drove deeper into the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, we found kilometer-long trenches that were clearly the work of professional thieves using industrial earth-moving equipment, rather than hand-dug trenches made by nomad copper-cable-searching amateurs on camelback. Our Kazakh hosts said they could do nothing to stop these operations. In fact, they weren’t sure they had a legal right to stop them from “prospecting” on the site.

Group of men on a mountain with trees behind them and a snow spray.

Chimbulak Ski Basin – Alexander Slesarev, Siegfried Hecker, Kairat K. Kadyrzhanov, Aidl Zhianshakhovich Tuleushev, Jim Toevs. Source: Sig Hecker

It was the sight of these trenches that urged me to convince the three governments that they must cooperate to prevent the theft of nuclear materials and equipment left behind when the Soviets exited the test site in a hurry as their country collapsed.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, the most urgent threat to the rest of the world was no longer the immense nuclear arsenal in the hands of the Russian government but rather the possibility of its nuclear assets—weapons, materials, facilities, and experts—getting out of the hands of the government. As director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, I helped to initiate the US–Russia lab-to-lab nuclear cooperative program in 1992 to mitigate these nuclear threats.

The trilateral US–Russia–Kazakhstan cooperation began in 1999 to secure fissile materials that were left behind by the Soviets at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site, which was now in the newly independent country of Kazakhstan. The project was kept in confidence until the presidents of the three countries announced it at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in 2012.

In Doomed to Cooperate, individuals from the three countries recount their cooperative efforts at Semipalatinsk. Unlike the US–Kazakhstan projects initiated earlier on nuclear test tunnel closures, identifying experiments that left weapons-usable fissile materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) at the huge test site—whether in the field, in tunnels, or in containment vessels—required trilateral cooperation. The Russian scientists who conducted these experiments were the only ones who knew what was done and where. It required American nuclear scientists who conducted similar tests in the United States to assess how great a proliferation danger the fissile materials in their current state may constitute. And it required Kazakh scientists and engineers to take measures to remediate the dangers. The project also required the political support of all three countries and the financial support of the American government because it was the only one at the time with the financial means. That support came from the US Cooperative Threat Reduction (or Nunn-Lugar) program.

Continue reading at the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.

Comments Are Closed