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Kazakhstan: On Plutonium Mountain

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At left: A plutonium bomb detonates in the first Soviet nuclear test, code-named “First Lightning,” conducted Aug. 29, 1949, at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan. At right: The foothills of the Degelen Mountain complex at Semipalatinsk. Image at left courtesy of Universal Images Group, via Getty Images; Right, courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense.

When the WikiLeaks cables were first published in 2011, I was sifting through them, using search engines to ferret out information about nonproliferation efforts in the former Soviet Union. When I searched on the name “Semipalatinsk,” the former Soviet nuclear weapons test site in Kazakhstan, I found more than 70 U.S. government cables. Most of them were routine advisories about U.S. government programs and policies concerning Kazakhstan.

But a single paragraph, buried deep in the cables, was a surprise.

It was a routine message written by the U.S. Embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan for Gen. David Petraeus, who was soon to arrive in Kazakhstan on a tour as the Centcom commander. The cable was transmitted on January 9, 2009.

Paragraph 25 looked like this:

¶25. (S/NOFORN) Of all of the projects funded by the CTR appropriation, the most critical is a classified project to secure weapons-grade materials at the former Soviet nuclear weapons test site in Semipalatinsk. The project is tri-lateral, between Russia, Kazakhstan, and the United States, with the Russians providing the necessary data regarding material location and the United States providing funding to repatriate the material to Russia or secure it in situ. Due to complexities in the trilateral relationship between the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan, and uncertainty about future trilateral commitments to this project, the USG is ready to reprogram up to $100 million to finish the work at the site within the next two years. DOD’s current goal is to see the Government of Kazakhstan increase its security presence at the site (Ministry of Internal Affairs or troops), and discussions are underway to identify technology that can be used to assist Kazakhstan monitor the site for trespassers.

What caught my eye was the classification—secret, no foreign distribution—and the idea that there was still “weapons-grade” material at Semipalatinsk. I had heard of the radiation legacy of Soviet nuclear testing, and I knew of some activities there to close off testing holes in the 1990s, but not about any cleanup effort involving weapons-grade material.

I made some phone calls in an attempt to learn more. U.S. government sources were not very helpful, and those who knew would not talk about it. But the paragraph in the cable was a hint that something very interesting was going on in Kazakhstan. I kept nosing about the story, and on May 22, 2011, Ellen Barry, a New York Times correspondent, described some of the activity in a page one story. She noted that there was weapons-grade material at the site, highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, but there were still many unanswered questions.

On March 27, 2012, President Obama, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced at the nuclear security summit in Seoul that they had completed a joint operation at Semipalatinsk. The White House issued a fact sheet saying that “over a dozen weapons worth of nuclear material” may have remained at the site.

On the day of the announcement, the press didn’t pay much attention. This was the moment that Obama’s remarks to Medvedev were overheard on an open microphone. That was the day’s headline. But the twelve nuclear weapons? Those were ignored.

I then learned that another journalist, Eben Harrell, was working on a story about Semipalatinsk. At the time, Eben was posted at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, and had learned about the Semipalatinsk operation from Belfer colleague William Tobey, who oversaw some of the work at Semipalatinsk while on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush (Tobey would also publish a brief article on Semipalatinsk which can be found here). We decided to join forces to investigate further and find out what had really happened at Semipalatinsk. Thanks to a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center, we were able to connect with some important sources who were now more willing to talk. Eben went to Kazakhstan to see the site and interview Russian, American and Kazakh officials at a ceremony marking the conclusion of the project. I interviewed other sources, including Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University and Andy Weber of the Defense Department, both of whom played key roles in the project.

We were able to examine both U.S. and Russian documents and interview participants from all three countries. What we found was quite an extraordinary story. A large amount of plutonium left over from Soviet tests on various weapons projects remained buried for years at Semipalatinsk after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of it was literally within meters of where metals scavengers were combing the site for old copper wire and steel from railroad tracks. They might easily have happened upon the plutonium, and it certainly would have been of interest to Iran at a time when it was searching for fissile material for a possible nuclear weapon.

The three-way effort by Russia, the United States and Kazakhstan to seal off the materials and secure the site took 17 years. The full story is in our report for the Belfer Center.

The story has important lessons for the future. To me, the most striking is the need to overcome mistrust and secrecy when it comes to securing loose nuclear material. In this case, a major hurdle to locking down the plutonium was simply finding it. Russia, successor to the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, knew the where it was, but had been reluctant to reveal the details. The locations and information came out slowly, over more than a decade, largely because scientists and experts collaborated to ease suspicions. The $150 million price tag, paid by the United States, seems to have been a bargain.

Imagine the danger if the plutonium had been carted away by terrorists, or states seeking to build a bomb. In the end, there is no evidence that anyone actually walked off with any plutonium from Semipalatinsk. But it was a close call.

President Obama's appeal in 2009 to “secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world in four years” had an impact; prime ministers and presidents took action. Many of the worst nuclear security gaps evident after the Cold War — sites with gaping holes in fences, no detectors to set off alarms and so on — have been closed. But there are places where security is still insufficient to protect against threats by terrorists and criminals. There are also many research reactors around the world with enough highly enriched uranium to fabricate at least one bomb with only minimal security in place.

There is still work to do. The cleanup at Semipalatinsk was a big story, but it won’t be the last.