Former Soviet Nuclear Test Site Still Holds Mysteries

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Aug. 15, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

SE­MEY, Kaza­kh­stan — The nuc­le­ar test­ing ground of the former So­viet Uni­on is a vast, bar­ren area close to the size of Lake Ontario that con­tin­ues to hold some amount of se­cur­ity risk.

Dur­ing the Cold War, hun­dreds of at­mo­spher­ic and un­der­ground atom­ic weapons tests were con­duc­ted here at the Semi­p­al­at­insk Test Site in north­east­ern Kaza­kh­stan, near the Rus­si­an bor­der.

Nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sions dec­ades ago at the test site left be­hind con­sid­er­able sens­it­ive ma­ter­i­al that Kaza­kh­stan, Rus­sia and the United States have worked to­geth­er for years to se­cure.

Last fall, the three na­tions com­pleted activ­ity on a joint pro­ject that sealed a num­ber of tun­nels in Degel­en Moun­tain at the south­ern end of the ex­per­i­ment­al range, where So­viet un­der­ground nuc­le­ar weapons tests were con­duc­ted dur­ing the Cold War.

Des­pite the suc­cess of that pro­ject, a real like­li­hood ex­ists that more nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al re­mains out there, bur­ied be­neath the soil of the Semi­p­al­at­insk steppe, un­se­cured and po­ten­tially vul­ner­able to theft, ac­cord­ing to Sergey Lukashen­ko, dir­ect­or of the In­sti­tute of Ra­di­ation Safety and Eco­logy at Kaza­kh­stan’s Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Cen­ter.

It is not clear wheth­er au­thor­it­ies know ex­actly where the sub­stances are loc­ated and in what amounts and con­di­tions.

Kaza­kh­stani gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and is­sue ex­perts say that any ma­ter­i­al still left un­ac­coun­ted likely stops far short of pos­ing the kind of nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism risk that the plutoni­um, left be­hind in the tun­nels of Degel­en Moun­tain, did.

Still, Sergei Berez­in, the deputy dir­ect­or gen­er­al of the Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Cen­ter, which man­ages Semi­p­al­at­insk, last week told a group of vis­it­ing U.S. journ­al­ists “it is pos­sible” that there might still be sens­it­ive nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al at the former test site.

The Kaza­kh­stani gov­ern­ment in As­tana is dis­cuss­ing with Mo­scow what it knows about any nuc­le­ar ex­per­i­ments that might have been con­duc­ted by the So­viet Uni­on at vari­ous points around Semi­p­al­at­insk, an area of roughly 7,000 square miles.

“We’ve been hold­ing con­sulta­tions with the Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment. It’s an on­go­ing ne­go­ti­ation,” Berez­in said through a trans­lat­or.

“The prob­lem is even Rus­si­ans, they don’t have very ex­act in­form­a­tion about events that happened in the 1950s,” Lukashen­ko said.

Lukashen­ko is lead­ing a team of sci­ent­ists that spends stretches of time liv­ing in camps at Semi­p­al­at­insk — also known as “the Poly­gon,” due to its shape — while they con­duct re­search in­to the linger­ing en­vir­on­ment­al im­pacts of ra­di­ation pro­duced by the nuc­le­ar tests and search for areas of un­usu­ally high ra­dio­activ­ity that can sig­nal the pres­ence of un­ac­coun­ted nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al.

Un­der the So­viet Uni­on, de­tails about in­di­vidu­al weapons tests — as well as atom­ic en­ergy safety ex­per­i­ments that em­ployed nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als — were kept secret by dif­fer­ent min­is­tries, ac­cord­ing to Lukashen­ko.

“One de­part­ment didn’t know what the oth­er de­part­ment [was] do­ing and only a few people who planned [the] ex­per­i­ment, who in­ven­ted [the] ex­per­i­ment, knew everything,” he told U.S. re­port­ers, whose travel to Kaza­kh­stan was or­gan­ized by the In­ter­na­tion­al Re­port­ing Pro­ject.

The So­vi­ets were un­der­stood to have spotty re­cord-keep­ing, mak­ing it pos­sible that there is yet more sens­it­ive ma­ter­i­al to be found at the test site. There is little in­dic­a­tion that Rus­sia has with­held rel­ev­ant in­form­a­tion, but rather Mo­scow could simply lack re­li­able data that might be passed along to Wash­ing­ton or As­tana.

The Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Cen­ter has be­gun a com­pre­hens­ive sur­vey of the Semi­p­al­at­insk Ex­per­i­ment­al Field, the area where most of the at­mo­spher­ic tests took place.

Based on con­cerns that bad act­ors might seek to gath­er up large amounts of con­tam­in­ated dirt in or­der to ex­tract the plutoni­um con­tained with­in it and use it to build a weapon, the cen­ter is doc­u­ment­ing levels of the chem­ic­al ele­ment in the soil over an area about 125 square miles.

“There are some places with high con­cen­tra­tions of plutoni­um,” Lukashen­ko said.

Still, he thinks it would be very dif­fi­cult for the plutoni­um to be fash­ioned in­to a nuc­le­ar bomb.

“To ex­tract a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of plutoni­um, you have to treat tons of soil, hun­dreds of tons,” Lukashen­ko said.

One would also need ac­cess to spe­cial­ized equip­ment and know­ledge of spe­cif­ic chem­ic­al pro­cesses for re­mov­ing the plutoni­um from the soil, “but it’s pos­sible in prin­ciple” to ex­tract the fis­sile ma­ter­i­al, he said.

Less tech­nic­ally ar­du­ous would be us­ing the soil to con­struct a ra­di­olo­gic­al “dirty bomb.” Kaza­kh­stan and the United States pre­vi­ously worked to­geth­er to pave over a dif­fer­ent sec­tion of Semi­p­al­at­insk con­tain­ing a large amount of plutoni­um-filled soil that was judged to pose a dirty-bomb threat.

Lukashen­ko said he sup­ports cart­ing away all of the heav­ily con­tam­in­ated soil at the Ex­per­i­ment­al Field, which he es­tim­ated might con­tain enough plutoni­um to pro­duce one or per­haps even two bombs.

Presently, the U.S. and Kaza­kh­stani gov­ern­ments are dis­cuss­ing the para­met­ers of a pro­ject that would gath­er up all of the highly con­tam­in­ated soil and trans­fer it to a tun­nel in Degel­en Moun­tain that would then be sealed. Wash­ing­ton is un­der­stood to be will­ing to fund the work.

Both gov­ern­ments de­clined to dis­cuss spe­cif­ics about the con­sulta­tions, in­clud­ing when the pro­ject might get un­der way, due to the sens­it­ive nature of the work.

While Degel­en Moun­tain is kept un­der sur­veil­lance by Kaza­kh­stani troops — as well as by sensors and drones provided by the United States — the rest of Semi­p­al­at­insk is left fairly un­pro­tec­ted, ac­cord­ing to Dmitriy Kalmykov, dir­ect­or of the Eco-Mu­seum in the city of Karaganda, south of As­tana.

Kalmykov’s or­gan­iz­a­tion es­tim­ates that a few thou­sand people ac­tu­ally live on the Poly­gon. Cattle are free to graze on the land and cars come and go.

Pri­or to the start of the Ex­per­i­ment­al Field sur­vey, Rus­sia in­dic­ated it did not ex­pect the study would turn up any­thing un­usu­al, Lukashen­ko said.

“When we start this very de­tailed sur­vey of [the] Ex­per­i­ment­al Field, Rus­sia changes their opin­ion. Be­fore they said ‘No, it’s noth­ing in­ter­est­ing for us.’ Now, they change a little bit,” the ra­di­ation in­sti­tute dir­ect­or said with a chuckle. “They said, ‘We are afraid you will find something.’”

He ad­ded: “They are just afraid that maybe some­body from their or­gan­iz­a­tion made something” in the early 1950s that “nobody knows [about] and if we try to dig up something, we will find [it].”

Just with­in the past year, Lukashen­ko’s team found a frag­ment of a spe­cial al­loy that con­tains a very unique com­pos­i­tion of en­riched urani­um, nick­el and iron. The al­loy was found bur­ied about three feet deep in the Ex­per­i­ment­al Field.

“I don’t un­der­stand for what they pro­duced this ma­ter­i­al,” Lukashen­ko said, adding that much nuc­le­ar re­search per­formed at Semi­p­al­at­insk six dec­ades ago went bey­ond just weapons test­ing. “Nobody knows for what they pro­duced this al­loy.”

It’s dis­cov­er­ies like these that Lukashen­ko said led former Los Alam­os Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory Dir­ect­or Siegfried Heck­er to dub him and his team “nuc­le­ar ar­che­olo­gists.”

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