Keeping The Plutonium From The Scavengers At Semipalatinsk

Sig Hecker spoke last night (January 19) in Los Alamos on dealing with fissionable materials at the former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Much of the information has only recently been declassified.

Sig Hecker spoke last night (January 19) in Los Alamos on dealing with fissionable materials at the former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Much of the information has only recently been declassified.

William Tobey told the broad outlines of the story, but Sig brought it to life with the names of the people involved and photos of work at the site, which is now completed.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed at Reykjavik in October 1986 to allow teams to observe each other’s underground nuclear tests. So in 1988, a Soviet team came to the Nevada Test Site, and an American team went to Semipalatinsk.

In 1992, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was an independent nuclear state, but President Nursultan Nazarbaev declared it non-nuclear and shipped back to Russia the nuclear missiles that had been stationed there. The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site was closed to further tests.

The test site is in northeastern Kazakhstan, about the size of Connecticut. A total of 456 nuclear explosions, atmospheric and underground, were carried out there. But the site also holds two reactors and a number of other tests. In the map above, engineers and observers stayed in Kurchatov City, and Experimental Field is where most of the atmospheric tests took place, with underground tests in the Degelen Mountains. Not shown on the map are Aktenberly and Ploshad 7, west of the Degelen Mountains, where hydrodynamic and hydronuclear tests were done.

Those tests used explosives to determine the properties of plutonium and enriched uranium that were needed to design nuclear weapons. Hydrodynamic tests use smaller amounts of fissionable material and were done in a grid of holes, one for each experiment, across a wide area. Hydronuclear tests use larger amounts of fissionable material, and some were done on the surface. Others were done in large containers.

Neither kind of test fissioned and destroyed the material. As director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sig knew that the Soviets would have done experiments like this. So in 1997 he asked his Russian hosts, “What did you leave at Semipalatinsk?” The Russians didn’t want to talk about it. They were worried about their liability for environmental damage. Sig was worried about nonproliferation.

And that was a real worry. Kazakhstan was not a wealthy state at the time, and fencing the test site was not an option. It wouldn’t have worked, because people in the area needed money, and there was plenty of scrap metal at Semipalatinsk. Diagnostics for the nuclear tests required many miles of copper wiring. Digging up that wiring and other metal left behind paid well. There are trenches across the testing areas. What if one of those entrepreneurs decided to dig up or collect the fissionable material?

At about the same time, some of us at Los Alamos were becoming involved with projects in Kazakhstan through the International Science and Technology Center. (I was one of them, and I thank Sig for the shout-out last night. Others were in the audience.) This built trust with the Kazakhstanis and their government and many great personal relationships and memories.

In 1999, Sig convinced Rady Ilkaev, the director of the All Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics (Russian acronym VNIIEF, in Sarov), to visit Kazakhstan with him and talk about what was left. There were probably one hundred kilograms of plutonium. The stock we worry about in North Korea is thirty to forty kilograms.

By May 2000, a tripartite agreement was signed between the United States, Russia, and Kazakhstan to deal with the fissionable material.

Removing the material would be expensive, particularly since the explosives had scattered it and driven it into unknown depths of soil. For the areas of hydrodynamic and hydronuclear tests, covers of concrete and additional materials to control water movement and minimize leaching were constructed so that reaching fissionable material would require an equally massive construction project. Ten meters of sand and soil covered the concrete. (Operation Groundhog)

Containment tanks called kolbas had also been used for those experiments. They were several meters long and three or four meters in diameter, judging from Sig’s photos. A mixture of cement, water, and sand was developed to fill the containers and fix whatever fissionable material they contained in place. They were also covered with sand and soil. (Operation Matchbox)

The Degelen Mountains contain 181 tunnels for nuclear tests. In 2000, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency had sealed the tunnels by explosions that collapsed the first five to fifteen meters. But the scavengers were ingenious: they dug from above or the side into the uncollapsed test areas of the tunnels. The environmental project I was working with had found significant levels of plutonium in water flowing out from some of the tunnels.

Not all of the tests had resulted in nuclear explosions, leaving plutonium behind, along with other metals that were the objective of the scavengers. A hundred ten of them had been accessed after they were closed. So workers re-opened the tunnels, filled kolbas in some of them, and removed dangerous materials, after which the tunnels were collapsed. Filling the kolbas in the tunnels was known as Operation Nomad, and clearing the other tunnels, Operation Golden Eagle.

American drones now monitor the test site. Seismic monitors have been installed to pick up vehicle movements.

So much of what is written after the fact, by people removed from the actions, is impersonal, like the Tobey article. But many people are involved in what is academically called international relations. Things can go wrong anywhere up and down the line, from individuals behaving badly through bureaucrats protecting their turf and diplomats getting technical stuff wrong. When they go well, it’s extremely satisfying for all involved and good for the world.



Photo is of one of the Degelen tunnels before it was collapsed, from the V. G. Khlopin Institute. The map is from here.

Update: I have added the names of the operations, because people like Jeffrey Lewis keep track of such things.

Update (8/20/2013): I’ve added a new post about my small role in the Plutonium Mountain saga. With photos.

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