Plutonium Mountain: A Prequel

In the odd way life meanders along, I had a couple of connections to Plutonium Mountain.

In the odd way life meanders along, I had a couple of connections to Plutonium Mountain.

In the early nineties, one of the operable units I managed for the Los Alamos Environmental Remediation Program was OU 1144, Technical Area 49. [Caution: enormous pdf that takes a long time to load.]

TA-49 was the site of underground hydronuclear tests, in which assemblies of plutonium and enriched uranium were subjected to explosions to determine their properties. The tests were done between 1959 and 1961, in response to severe concerns about the safety of one of the bombs in the US nuclear arsenal. Although they were not tests involving nuclear explosions, they became an issue in the moratorium on nuclear testing in force for part of that time, and they laid a basis for the technologies involved in the underground tests under the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited atmospheric tests in 1963.

When the work plan for OU 1144 was written, several tens of kilograms of plutonium and enriched uranium were located there. I have seen no notice of their removal, so I assume they are still there, deeply buried, probably in the form of oxide powders blown into the rock, the area fenced and monitored by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

It must have been in 1995* that I received an e-mail from Steven Gitomer, the Laboratory’s liaison with the International Science and Technology Committee. Steve regularly sent around lists of proposals to be reviewed. The ISTC is the international organization that provided funds to scientists in the countries of the former Soviet Union to keep them employed in peaceful projects. This e-mail listed a proposal from the Institute of Nuclear Physics, Alatau (near Almaty), Kazakhstan: “Characterization of Radiological and Non-radiological Contaminants at the Semipalatinsk Test Site,” Sirazhet Khajekber, Project Manager. Okay, I thought, that’s like what I’m doing, and I was intrigued by Semipalatinsk, one of the main Soviet nuclear test sites.

I found the proposal to be comprehensive and impressive. I wasn’t sure that the National Nuclear Center of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Alatau, near Almaty, could complete the large amount of work they proposed, but I figured it was worthwhile to give them the chance. A month or so after I sent Steve my review, he asked me if I would be the US partner for the project. The ISTC required a partner. I wasn’t sure that was appropriate after my having reviewed the project, but Steve assured me it was okay.

So I became a part of the project. Sirazhet and I exchanged e-mails regularly, and I shared my experiences in environmental remediation and made suggestions. I received their progress reports. The project was a large one for the National Nuclear Center. They worked hard on it.

In the late nineties, NATO was sponsoring workshops in the countries of the former Soviet Union and was urging the Laboratory to plan some. It was perhaps late 1997 that I first heard that there was an area at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site that had plutonium scattered on the surface from tests similar to the ones that had occurred at TA-49. At that time, I had just connected with Tõnis Kaasik in Estonia about a former yellowcake plant in Sillamäe that continued to produce rare earth metals and oxides. In the spring of 1998, we proposed a NATO Advanced Research Workshop on what needed to be done to stabilize the kilometer-long tailings pond on the Gulf of Finland and to reengineer the plant not to produce the outflow to the tailings pond.

Two other proposals from the Laboratory went to NATO that spring, one of them related to Semipalatinsk. My workshop was to be held in Tallinn in early October, so I kept plenty busy with that, although Tõnis and his staff did most of the logistics. The other two proposals were funded later, and one is mentioned in the “Plutonium Mountain” report, page 17.

Khajekber’s team at the National Nuclear Center fulfilled all their promises, and I worked with them on a followon proposal, “Development of the Basis and Choice of the Technology for Removal of Surface Contamination and Techniques for Limiting Secondary Contamination of the SNTS Territory,” which was funded in 1999.

I continued to hear about the hydronuclear tests at Semipalatinsk in classified conversations at the Laboratory. I didn’t want to be involved, though, because I didn’t want to deal with the hassles of classification. My projects with the National Nuclear Center were open; we could e-mail each other, and I could talk about it to whomever I wanted.

My Kazakh colleagues also avoided the areas in which plutonium was reported to be on the surface, although they sampled water coming from tunnels in the Degelen mountains. Two of the people involved in our project – Vladimir Solodukhin and Sergei Lukashenko – are mentioned in the “Plutonium Mountain” report. They and others may have been aware of the surface plutonium problem.

The State Department provided funds for US collaborators to visit ISTC projects. I planned twice to visit Kazakhstan while I worked at the Laboratory, and both times had to sadly e-mail Sirazhet to say that I wouldn’t be coming. Even before 9/11, many signoffs were required up the bureaucratic chain for foreign travel, particularly to the big bad Former Soviet Union. The excuse that was given to me was that the DOE couldn’t figure out who should sign off because the funds were coming from State. I’m not convinced that it wasn’t a matter of office politics nearer home.

So after I retired in 2001, my first big trip was to Kazakhstan. On my own dime. Sirazhet and his daughter, Bayan, met me at the Almaty airport in the middle of the night – the old airport, which was chaotic, to say the least. I stayed in a nice hotel in downtown Almaty with blooming linden trees along the street in front of it and a big park with a beautiful orthodox church and the Museum of Musical Instruments across the street. High mountains beyond, the Tien Shan. The photo at the top of the post is the view from my hotel room.

The earlier disappointments made the meetings all the more joyful. I toured the laboratories where where the work was done on our project and met everyone working on the project, as well as the director of the Institute, Kairat Kadyrzhanov. I timed the visit to coincide with an international conference. And then we went to Semipalatinsk.

It was a couple of hours plane trip from Almaty to Semey, then another couple of hours on a very bumpy road to Kurchatov City. Here I am with Rajmund Gwozdz (left), Sirazhet (right), and Igor Kurchatov (above).

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The view from the balcony outside my room at sunrise the next morning. The river is the Irtysh. I have been told that the National Nuclear Center’s guesthouse used to be where the generals stayed for nuclear tests. The sunrise was accompanied by the singing of hundreds of birds, including the first cuckoos I’ve heard.

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We saw the same sort of “mining” for metals described in the report. Here’s one trench.

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And even some of the scavengers.

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We were in the Degelen Mountains, too. Here’s one of the tunnels that was closed early on. My colleagues had measured significant plutonium in the water coming out from under the closures and were concerned that the closure would prevent remediation. Although the larger amounts of plutonium have been removed, much is likely to remain in the tunnels in powdered form, driven into the rock. That will continue to leach out.

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Most of what is written about Semipalatinsk features ominous skies over a dry, desolate landscape. I was there in the early summer, and the steppe was abundant and beautiful. Many raptors circled the skies, and I saw my first hoopoe. The vegetation varied from one area to another, much of it lush. Where we stopped for lunch, I hated to walk off the road, because the ground was covered with little houseleek-type plants. Crunch. Crunch. Hated that! There were low bushes with pink flowers and many other flowers. Here are a couple of photos to show what I mean. I could have spent a month taking pictures.

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So I didn’t work directly on “Plutonium Mountain”. But Sig Hecker has graciously said that my project helped to build the trust that was needed to work with the Kazakhs on that much more difficult project.  I hope so. It was a great experience.


*I am writing this post more or less off the top of my head, not consulting the documents in boxes in my garage. So dates are approximate and may be wrong, but I’ve done enough double-checking that they are probably not too far off.



My photos.

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