Author Topic: The mission to secure and seal off Kazakhstan's vast nuclear material  (Read 1715 times)

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Offline Ajai Singh

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What Lies Beneath
The mission to secure and seal off Kazakhstan's vast nuclear material -- buried deep underground -- is one of the greatest nonproliferation stories never told.


There's one fear that keeps leaders from across the globe awake at night: The prospect that somehow, somewhere, criminals or terrorists are getting their hands on the essential ingredients of a nuclear weapon. At the nuclear summit in South Korea last month, policymakers gathered to prevent that nightmare from becoming a reality by launching an initiative to secure all vulnerable nuclear stockpiles within four years. But despite the fanfare surrounding the summit, one of the greatest recent successes in this initiative has thus far remained buried -- both literally and figuratively.

In an extraordinary feat of engineering and international cooperation, U.S., Russian, and Kazakh scientists, engineers, and miners recently secured enough fissile material for a dozen nuclear weapons that had been left behind vulnerable to theft in tunnels formerly used by the Soviet Union for underground nuclear weapons tests in Kazakhstan.

The formerly secret mission was launched in 2005 at the encouragement of an intrepid U.S. weapons expert, after it was discovered that metal scavengers had penetrated the abandoned tunnels. The project received attention from the highest levels of government -- both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama monitored its progress. It is an example of the quiet but essential international cooperation that is urgently needed to prevent terrorists from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.

How this extraordinary, seven-year effort came to pass deserves the long version of the story. From 1961 to 1989, the Soviet Union conducted hundreds of nuclear tests and experiments at a remote and forbidding site called Degelen Mountain. Located within Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk test range, the site is about the size of New Jersey and located some 300 miles east of Astana, the second coldest capital city in the world. It was chosen by the Soviets precisely because it is so desolate: Temperatures soar to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and plunge to -40 degrees in the winter. Blizzard conditions are common -- remarkably, they sometimes make the test site more accessible by filling in potholed roads, which have gone unrepaired since the Soviet era, with ice and snow.

The Soviets conducted over 450 nuclear detonations at Semipalatinsk, mostly in tunnels hundreds of yards long, buried deep below ground. Roughly 40 of the tests were small explosions with very low nuclear yields, so the fissile material -- highly enriched uranium or plutonium -- was neither consumed by the blasts nor infused into the molten rock created by them. Instead, according to one senior Obama administration official, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade fissile material was "readily recoverable" in the tunnels. This did not matter much so long as the KGB, the USSR's premier internal security agency, held an iron grip on the Soviet Union, with special attention paid to remote and sensitive nuclear sites like Semipalatinsk. But when the Soviet Union crumbled into 15 independent countries in 1991, all that changed.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan gained its independence. But it came with a catch: Kazakh officials were now responsible for an environmental catastrophe, as well as a proliferation risk, at the former Soviet test site.

Indeed, the world did move quickly -- but sadly, insufficiently -- to contain this risk. Working under Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, which were launched by President George H.W. Bush's administration, to dismantle the former Soviet nuclear establishment in the 1990s, U.S. engineers helped to barricade 181 tunnels and demolish their entrances to prevent them from ever again being used for nuclear testing -- but, in a pre-9/11 world -- they paid little attention to the possibility of fissile material left in the testing tunnels.