U.S. Helps Secure Kazakh Nuclear Test Site

(May. 23) -A 2009 aerial view of Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk Test Site. The United States has been financing efforts to protect plutonium and highly enriched uranium at the site (Stanislav Filippov/Getty Images).
(May. 23) -A 2009 aerial view of Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk Test Site. The United States has been financing efforts to protect plutonium and highly enriched uranium at the site (Stanislav Filippov/Getty Images).

The U.S. Defense Department has funded the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles and movement sensors as part of a quiet effort to safeguard weapon-capable fissile material at a shuttered Cold War nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, the New York Times reported on Saturday (see GSN, Jan. 11).

Moscow has cautiously been sharing details with Washington on the Soviet atomic trials conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, and the United States has doled out funds for transferring or better protecting the facility's caches of plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

Kazakhstan has supplied manpower for the effort, but the former Soviet republic cannot access details on the materials it is helping to protect.

“People ask me, are we doing the right thing, closing access to the tunnels?” Kazakh National Nuclear Center head Kairat Kadyrzhanov said. “And I say I do not know what is there, and I do not have the right to know.”

Kadyrzhanov, whose agency oversees the site, said 500 Kazakh troops are now responsible for security in the area.

Washington has for some time been worried about weapon-usable material that remains at the installation, according to the Times.

One project, dubbed "Operation Groundhog," sought to prevent terrorists from acquiring radioactive soil from the site for use in a radiological "dirty bomb," Science magazine reported in 2003. A high-level defense official in 2009 referred to an intense effort to “prevent nuclear residue material from falling into terrorists’ hands,” according to leaked diplomatic records released in 2010 by the transparency organization WikiLeaks. The project was "the most critical" U.S.-funded work to safeguard Soviet-era atomic assets, one of the documents says.

The incoming Obama administration adopted a "radical change of attitude" over efforts to protect the Semipalatinsk site, and Washington pressed for the project to proceed five times faster, Kadyrzhanov said, adding Moscow has disclosed more data about the facility.

“The danger that Russia is keeping something from us has been diminished,” the official said.

The Cold War's rapid end resulted in the site's disuse; one untested nuclear explosive remained in a test tunnel until 1995, when specialists eliminated it without igniting the fission process, Kadyrzhanov's office indicated.

The site went unprotected for a period, enabling raiders to scour it for copper that could be purchased by Chinese merchants. Roughly 10 individuals perished after inhaling poison fumes inside the facility's underground passages, National Nuclear Center Training and Information Director Yuri Strilchuk said.

Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in 1999 said a U.S.-backed program was blocking off the site's final passages. Nearby profiteers broke into the areas with tractors and controlled detonations, though, in certain instances penetrating concrete barricades more than 160 feet thick, the Kazakh atomic office indicated. As of seven years ago, entry had been gained into all but 71 of the 181 blocked tunnels.

“The mentality of a Soviet person has changed,” Kadyrzhanov said. “Fifty years ago, if they saw barbed wire or a concrete wall they would go away. But now, it’s the opposite — they will climb the fence just to see what is inside.”

The next effort at the site -- launched in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 -- was higher in priority, more expensive and more shielded from public view, possibly due to heightened concern over potential radiological "dirty bomb" attacks, according to the Times.

Individuals within the U.S. government by 2009 had pressed Kazakhstan to close off the facility's passages in 24 months, noting concerns over the cooperative effort's possible fragility, the leaked documents indicate. Moscow, for example, might worry that extremists or U.S. specialists could assess material left by nuclear tests at the site to analyze the composition of the high-powered fission devices the Soviet Union was detonating prior to its collapse, Kadyrzhanov suggested.

“The main secret of a bomb is the recipe of the charge,” the official said. “I could take a sample and make a conclusion about the recipe.”

Concrete inserted at the site would draw in plutonium traces, so “it is easier to make plutonium from scratch at a nuclear station” than to remove it from the Kazakh facility, he said.

“For example, a bad guy becomes president of Kazakhstan after [Nursultan] Nazarbayev, and says, ‘I want to extract plutonium from this charge,’” Kadyrzhanov said. “He will have to work very, very hard. We are closing it down so that it will be practically impossible for future generations to get it out” (Eileen Barry, New York Times, May 21).

May 23, 2011
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The U.S. Defense Department has funded the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles and movement sensors as part of a quiet effort to safeguard weapon-capable fissile material at a shuttered Cold War nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, the New York Times reported on Saturday (see GSN, Jan. 11).