The United States as of early 2010 was allocating tens of millions of dollars annually to safeguard radiological material from a Soviet-era nuclear test site, says a diplomatic cable released by the transparency organization WikiLeaks (see GSN, May 14, 2009).
The project, dubbed "Operation Groundhog," sought to prevent terrorists from acquiring radioactive soil from Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk Test Site for use in a radiological "dirty bomb," Arms Control Wonk reported yesterday. The effort was underwritten by the U.S. Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
"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 February 2010 cable states. "The project is trilateral, 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."
"In addition to securing the materials at the site, DOD is pressing the government of Kazakhstan to increase its security presence at the site (Ministry of Internal Affairs Special Troops), and has provided ground sensor and UAV technology that is used to assist Kazakhstan monitor the site," the document adds (Jeffrey Lewis, Arms Control Wonk, Jan. 10).
The effort -- launched in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 -- included paving over a section of the Semipalatinsk site containing a particularly high concentration of plutonium traces, Science magazine reported in 2003. The Soviet Union over 40 years conducted 456 nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk site, which is comparable in size to the nation of Israel. However, the area first addressed by the project was outside the four site's four primary detonation zones.
One Pentagon official told Science that plutonium in the area “a serious proliferation concern."
“Our most pressing problem is preventing terrorist access to fissile materials,” added Shamil Tukhvatulin, then director general of the Kazakh National Nuclear Center (Richard Stone, Science, May 23, 2003).
Defense Department budget submissions indicate U.S. expenditures on Operation Groundhog have increased dramatically in recent years, suggesting the project focused on securing additional sensitive material, Arms Control Wonk reported. The effort received $4.5 million in fiscal 2005 -- which was apparently anticipated as its last year -- and more than $50 million in fiscal 2010 (Lewis, Arms Control Wonk).