High-Grade Plutonium Locked in Kazakhstan Mountain at Minimal Risk

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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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.

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