High-Grade Plutonium Locked in Kazakhstan Mountain at Minimal Risk

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
See more stories about...
Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Aug. 21, 2013, 5:02 a.m.

SE­MEY, Kaza­kh­stan — Though much of Kaza­kh­stan’s Cold War-era nuc­le­ar de­trit­us — left over from years of So­viet atom­ic tests — was sealed in a moun­tain years ago, it the­or­et­ic­ally could be re­moved and used for il­li­cit weapons of mass de­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

The hope is, though, that any such move to bore in­side well-sealed tun­nels for deeply hid­den ma­ter­i­al and at­tempt to chem­ic­ally ex­tract fis­sile ma­ter­i­al would be so im­prac­tic­al as to of­fer little tempta­tion to would-be bad act­ors.

The­or­et­ic­ally it is pos­sible to pull high-grade plutoni­um from tun­nels in­side the Cent­ral Asi­an na­tion’s Degel­en Moun­tain, but in real terms it is ba­sic­ally “im­possible,” Sergey Lukashen­ko, dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute of Ra­di­ation Safety and Eco­logy at Kaza­kh­stan’s Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Cen­ter, told a group of vis­it­ing U.S. journ­al­ists. Their travel was or­gan­ized by the In­ter­na­tion­al Re­port­ing Pro­ject.

Spe­cial “bind­ing agents” used to seal the nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al have made it “very dif­fi­cult to take it out,” said Sergei Berez­in, the deputy dir­ect­or gen­er­al of the Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Cen­ter, which over­sees the former So­viet nuc­le­ar test­ing grounds.

He said it would be “cheap­er to pro­duce new plutoni­um from scratch” than to at­tempt to with­draw the nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al from Degel­en in north­east­ern Kaza­kh­stan, near the Rus­si­an bor­der. The high cost of get­ting at the fis­sile ma­ter­i­al would make any ex­trac­tion op­er­a­tion by clandes­tine scav­engers fin­an­cially un­ap­peal­ing, Berez­in sug­ges­ted.

Un­be­knownst to many people, for years after the fall of the So­viet Uni­on, there ex­is­ted a very real danger that large chunks of high-grade plutoni­um leftover from nuc­le­ar weapons tests might be dis­covered in the tun­nels of Degel­en, col­lec­ted and then sold on the black mar­ket to ter­ror­ists, ac­cord­ing to an in­vest­ig­at­ive re­port called “Plutoni­um Moun­tain” pub­lished last week by the Belfer Cen­ter for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Af­fairs at Har­vard Uni­versity


The danger was aver­ted, thanks to a fruit­ful three-way co­oper­at­ive ar­range­ment between the United States, Rus­sia and Kaza­kh­stan — along with some amount of luck. The de­tailed in­ner work­ings of that 17-year ef­fort to se­cure the plutoni­um in­side Degel­en Moun­tain were re­vealed for the first time in the 40-page re­port. The pub­lic, though, got a taste of just how ser­i­ous a pro­lif­er­a­tion danger ex­is­ted in early 2011 when Wikileaks pub­lished U.S. State De­part­ment cables that dis­cussed the pro­ject.

The three na­tions de­clared last fall that they suc­cess­fully had se­cured al­most all of the sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al at Degel­en. In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al con­sulta­tions are said to be on­go­ing for a sep­ar­ate pro­ject that would gath­er up a large amount of plutoni­um-con­tam­in­ated soil from around the Semi­p­al­at­insk Test Site, which could be used to build a ra­di­olo­gic­al “dirty bomb,” and place it in­side the moun­tain struc­ture.

The com­pleted pro­ject to se­cure an un­known, but sub­stan­tial, quant­ity of nuc­le­ar weapon-us­able ma­ter­i­al in­side Degel­en was “one of the very few suc­cess­ful joint pro­jects of the USA and Rus­sia, where both parties can un­der­stand [each oth­er] very well,” said Berez­in. “We wish it was like that [for] every pro­ject,” he told re­port­ers through a trans­lat­or.

With the fall of the So­viet Uni­on, much of the loc­al Kaza­kh­stani eco­nomy around the Semi­p­al­at­insk Test Site was dev­ast­ated, lead­ing a num­ber of people to take up scav­en­ging for cop­per wir­ing and oth­er metals in Degel­en Moun­tain that they could sell. The scrap met­al was left be­hind by So­viet sci­ent­ists and work­ers, who from 1961 to 1989 built up an elab­or­ate tun­nel in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port more than 220 un­der­ground tests, ac­cord­ing to the Belfer Cen­ter re­port.

From 1993 to 1997, the United States car­ried out a $6 mil­lion ef­fort to des­troy the nuc­le­ar test­ing in­fra­struc­ture at Degel­en, seal­ing its 181 tun­nels and 13 test shafts, says the re­port by Eben Har­rell, an as­so­ci­ate at the Belfer Cen­ter’s Pro­ject on Man­aging the Atom, and Dav­id Hoff­man, a con­trib­ut­ing ed­it­or at the Wash­ing­ton Post.

Per an agree­ment with Rus­sia, the tun­nels were closed without any U.S. of­fi­cials ex­plor­ing their in­teri­ors, so there was no full ac­count­ing of the nuc­le­ar-weapons-us­able ma­ter­i­al there.

“The tun­nel seal­ing had not dealt with the fis­sile ma­ter­i­als the So­vi­ets had left be­hind — some of which were read­ily ac­cess­ible if any­one got in­side the tun­nels, and some of which were in con­tain­ers out­side the tun­nels,” reads the re­port.

The clos­ure also did little to pre­vent en­ter­pris­ing loc­al scav­engers from us­ing in­dus­tri­al equip­ment to drill through the seals and reenter the tun­nels to re­sume searches for valu­able metals. Gold-min­ing op­er­a­tions also were tak­ing place in close vi­cin­ity of the site, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

It would take more than a dec­ade be­fore these re­main­ing risks were ad­dressed — work that re­quired new co­oper­a­tion between Kaza­kh­stan, Rus­sia and the United States.

U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons sci­ent­ist Siegfried Heck­er began in 1997, after his re­tire­ment as dir­ect­or of Los Alam­os Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory, to fo­cus much of his en­er­gies on con­vin­cing the U.S. gov­ern­ment that there was still a ser­i­ous pro­lif­er­a­tion risk at Degel­en Moun­tain.

Not all of the So­viet Uni­on’s nuc­le­ar tests and ex­per­i­ments in­side and around Degel­en res­ul­ted in the dis­pers­al of the used fis­sile ma­ter­i­al. Some tests were duds that left be­hind whole chunks of un­det­on­ated highly en­riched urani­um or plutoni­um. Oth­er ex­per­i­ments are thought to have left be­hind smal­ler pieces of high-pur­ity plutoni­um and urani­um ma­ter­i­al, the Belfer re­port states.

Some nuc­le­ar ex­per­i­ments took place out­side of Degel­en at nearby fields, where bore holes were dug to house the pro­ced­ures. Oth­er, smal­ler atom­ic ex­per­i­ments were con­duc­ted in “kolbas,” which are spe­cial con­tain­ment cham­bers. Some of the kolbas were sealed in­side the moun­tain, but some of them lay out­side the moun­tain in the open, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

“This ma­ter­i­al would be eas­ily ac­cess­ible to re­cov­er by a group in­ter­ested in ob­tain­ing weapons ma­ter­i­als for nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion,” Heck­er wrote in a 1998 let­ter to the U.S. em­bassy in Kaza­kh­stan, sum­mar­iz­ing the situ­ation at Degel­en, ac­cord­ing to the Belfer re­port.

Sub­sequent field­work turned up enough ac­cess­ible plutoni­um in just the kolbas and oth­er more-com­pact and less-pro­tec­ted “end-boxes,” which housed atom­ic ex­per­i­ments with smal­ler ex­plos­ive yields, to fuel more than 12 nuc­le­ar war­heads, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

“In­di­vidu­als could eas­ily ac­cess the area and ‘mine’ the ma­ter­i­al without be­ing de­tec­ted,” Heck­er wrote.

Dur­ing one vis­it in 1998, “Heck­er was shown one of the Semi­p­al­at­insk test tun­nels which had been closed earli­er in the dec­ade by the U.S.-backed pro­gram. The front of the tun­nel was plugged, but the scav­engers — look­ing for steel rails which had been laid in the tun­nels — broke in by drilling down from above, by­passing the plugs,” the re­port states.

By luck, it ap­pears that no scav­engers ever made off with any not­able quant­it­ies of high-grade urani­um or plutoni­um. But they are be­lieved to have come ex­tremely close to find­ing the ma­ter­i­al.

In two in­cid­ents, met­al for­agers broke in­to con­tain­ment cham­bers used for nuc­le­ar ex­per­i­ments; however, there were no in­dic­a­tions that any plutoni­um had been re­moved, ac­cord­ing to the re­port au­thors. The Pulitzer Cen­ter on Crisis Re­port­ing and the Ma­cAr­thur Found­a­tion sponsored their work.

For a time, ef­forts to se­cure Degel­en Moun­tain were car­ried out semi-in­form­ally by U.S. sci­ent­ists and some former So­viet coun­ter­parts who shed light on work done years be­fore at Semi­p­al­at­insk. Kaza­kh­stan sup­plied laborers to seal off the tun­nels and close the bore holes.

In 2000, the United States, Rus­sia and Kaza­kh­stan held talks on height­en­ing their mu­tu­al ef­forts to fur­ther se­cure the fis­sile ma­ter­i­al.

Wash­ing­ton agreed to fin­ance the pro­ject, which ul­ti­mately cost $150 mil­lion. Rus­sia provided in­form­a­tion about sus­pec­ted loc­a­tions of fis­sile ma­ter­i­al. Kaza­kh­stan ar­ranged for pro­ject per­son­nel to enter the na­tion and al­lowed the in­ter­na­tion­al work to take place.

Sci­ent­ists de­vised dif­fer­ent solu­tions for se­cur­ing vari­ous pock­ets of fis­sile ma­ter­i­al, ac­cord­ing to the Belfer re­port.

The nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al loc­ated in­side the kolbas was se­cured against ex­trac­tion by pump­ing a spe­cial­ized con­crete mix­ture con­tain­ing iron in­to the con­tain­ment cham­ber. The bore holes also were sealed.

“Now all of these tun­nels are blocked — and not only blocked; we [also] make a spe­cial phys­ic­al [con­crete] bar­ri­er,” said Lukashen­ko, the In­sti­tute of Ra­di­ation Safety and Eco­logy dir­ect­or.

Pro­gress moved along in fits and starts after the turn of the cen­tury, with one pause at­trib­uted to a lapse in an um­brella agree­ment that gov­erned Kaza­kh­stan’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in the U.S. Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion pro­gram.

At the 2010 Glob­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit in Wash­ing­ton, Pres­id­ent Obama, then-Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Dmitry Med­ve­dev and Kaza­kh­stani Pres­id­ent Nur­sultan Naz­ar­bayev jointly agreed to wrap up work at Degel­en by 2012.

This polit­ic­al dead­line gave the pro­ject the fi­nal push it needed and, in Oc­to­ber of last year, of­fi­cials from the three na­tions gathered at Semi­p­al­at­insk to form­ally toast com­ple­tion of the pro­ject.

What We're Following See More »
Wasserman Schultz Won’t Gavel Open the Convention
2 hours ago

Debbie Wasserman Schultz has given up her last remaining duty at this week's convention. Now, she's told her hometown newspaper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, that she will not gavel in the convention today. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will do the honors instead. "I have decided that in the interest of making sure that we can start the Democratic convention on a high note that I am not going to gavel in the convention," Wasserman Schultz said.

Sanders Supporters Boo When He Mentions Clinton-Kaine
2 hours ago

Perhaps this talk of unity has been overstated. Addressing a room full of his supporters today, Bernie Sanders heard "sustained boos" when he said he said it was essential that we elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.

FBI Investigating DNC Hack
2 hours ago

The FBI this morning issued a statement saying it is "investigating a cyber intrusion involving the DNC," adding that "a compromise of this nature is something we take very seriously." Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's campaign is suggesting that the hack "was committed by Russia to benefit Donald Trump."

Sanders Delegates Threaten to Challenge Kaine Pick
3 hours ago

A group of delegates loyal to Bernie Sanders is actively exploring how to challenge Tim Kaine's nomination for the vice presidency. A lead of the group "said he hoped the Democratic National Committee releases information within hours on how to submit a challenger to Kaine, which he said would require the signatures of 300 delegates. He said they have until Wednesday morning to file a challenge to Kaine and stressed that while his group would take any requests from the Sanders campaign under consideration, the delegate group is an independent organization."

A Three-Way Race in Utah?
3 hours ago

Here are some more numbers out of Utah that should frighten Donald Trump—and give hope to Gary Johnson. "An internal poll conducted for Rep. Mia Love two weeks ago found Trump at 29 percent, Clinton at 27 percent" and Libertarian candidate Johnson at 26 percent. "That was, however, before Trump picked Indiana Gov. Mike Pence." Utah party chairman James Evans said that move ought to clinch the state for Trump. "Utahns are going to come through because the level of distaste for Hillary is so deep," he said.