Into thin air: The story of Plutonium Mountain

By Bulletin Staff | August 20, 2013

Beginning in 1949 and spanning a period of 40 years, the Soviet Union carried out more than 450 nuclear tests in the isolated steppes of eastern Kazakhstan. In 1989, when the socialist state collapsed, the Russians pulled out and left the Kazakhs to their own devices—literally. Enough fissile material for a dozen or more nuclear weapons was left behind in mountain tunnels and bore holes, virtually unguarded and vulnerable to scavengers, rogue states, or potential terrorists.

In a remarkable and highly secretive feat of collaboration among the United States, Russia, and Kazakhstan, engineers and nuclear scientists from the three countries spent 15 years and $150 million to secure many of the tunnels and test areas at the sprawling Semipalatinsk Test Site. Siegfried S. Hecker, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, launched the project while director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He used his personal ties with Russian scientists to prod them into working with the Americans and Kazakhs after a visit to the test site in 1998 left him stunned by the lack of security and the presence of scavengers.

It was one of the greatest nuclear nonproliferation stories never told, until the White House and Pentagon revealed some details in 2012, which David Hoffman and Eben Harrel of Harvard’s Belfer Center made public over the weekend in an in-depth report, Plutonium Mountain. In October 2012, officials from Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States dedicated a monument that simply reads: The world has become safer.

In this interview, Hecker—who teaches the popular Stanford class Technology and National Security with former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry—speaks with the Bulletin about the extraordinary Semipalatinsk mission and talks about next steps to secure the site.

Why were you concerned about plutonium or highly enriched uranium scattered around the former Soviet test site? Did you see it as more than just an environmental and health problem?

The atmospheric nuclear explosions resulted in environmental contamination because everything is vaporized in such an explosion. However, I was familiar with additional experiments we Americans performed at our Nevada Test Site and, in fact, some in bore holes at Los Alamos that left these materials much more intact and easily attainable— thus, presenting proliferation or terrorism concerns.

Why did you suspect the Soviets of conducting similar tests?

We knew the Soviets had at least as robust a nuclear test and experimentation program as we had. If Nevada became an independent country tomorrow, the way the Soviet site now belongs to Kazakhstan, I would be very concerned. Besides, we had kept a close eye on what was going on at Semipalatinsk during the Cold War. It turned out that we had good reason to be concerned.

You were director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Why did you get personally involved in this project?

The great thing about being at Los Alamos was that you have so many bright people around you who kept track of everything going on in the security world. It was our scientists, who had been tracking the Soviets for decades, who brought these issues to my attention. These problems involved more than science; they involved politics and diplomacy. Our scientists needed help with the latter, but they also needed someone who understood the problem and could get action in Washington.

Was this the first time you got involved with the Russian nuclear complex?

No, on August 17, 1988, 25 years ago, I was sitting in the Nevada Test Site control room for the detonation of one of our nuclear devices. Remarkably, across from me was Viktor Mikhailov, leader of a Soviet scientific delegation and later minister of atomic energy. We were conducting an experiment to verify that the other country could adequately monitor the size of nuclear explosions. It was part of the Reagan-Gorbachev set of initiatives to end the Cold War; it grew out of technical discussions on the sideline of meetings to negotiate verification measures for the Threshold Test Ban Treaty

How did this experience play a role in the Semipalatinsk project?

We worked together with the Russian nuclear weapons scientists for the first time in Nevada and in a reciprocal nuclear test at Semipalatinsk on September 14, 1988. These events began the essential process of building the personal trust necessary to work side by side to tackle problems like those at Semipalatinsk.

You visited the Russian nuclear weapons labs in early 1992, right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Did they tell you about the problems at Semipalatinsk then?

No. They had fond memories of the nuclear testing days at Semipalatinsk. They thought it was tragic that Russia lost such an important asset to the now-independent country of Kazakhstan. They believed the real estate and its problems now belonged to Kazakhstan. The Russian government did not want to be stuck with a bill to clean up the test site and believed the highly publicized environmental issues were greatly overblown.

But surely they must have known that there was a proliferation risk with all the plutonium and highly enriched uranium that was left behind from their tests?

In the 1990s, the Russian nuclear weapons labs had bigger problems. They were worried about survival and how to pay their people. One has to put the Semipalatinsk issue in perspective. During one of my many visits to the Russian labs, the scientists told me that they had not been paid for nearly six months. They also did not think that someone would look for nuclear materials in such a desolate place.

How did you confirm your suspicions that the problems at Semipalatinsk were more than an environmental problem?

We got some discomforting reports from Kazakh scientists that prompted us to investigate this issue further.

How did you get involved with them?

The US government began a project in the early 1990s with the Kazakhs to close the testing tunnels and eliminate the nuclear testing infrastructure at Semipalatinsk under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. That was the first major US-Kazakh effort. We also involved the Kazakhs in an extension of programs we developed with the Russians on nuclear materials security. That brought Los Alamos and other Department of Energy laboratory scientists to the nuclear reactor on the Caspian Sea; to one in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s capital at that time; and to research reactors at the test site.

Did Kazakh scientists who visited Los Alamos confirm your worst fears?

As part of the Nunn-Lugar program, the United States established what was called an International Science and Technology Center with the Kazakhs to help scientists make the post-Cold War transition to civilian work. That program brought Kazakh scientists to work with my colleagues at Los Alamos. It was a January 1998 visit by Kairat Kadyrzhanov, director of the Kazakh Institute of Nuclear Physics, that confirmed my fears. He told me not only about finding radioactive hot spots on the test site, but also about not being able to control the metal scavengers digging up copper cables to sell. And he invited me to Semipalatinsk.

What did you find during your April 1998 visit to Semipalatinsk?

I was alarmed to find unmanned guard posts and virtually no security at the site. My Los Alamos colleagues and I became convinced that Semipalatinsk was not only a serious proliferation problem, but also an urgent one. The copper cable thieves were not nomads on camelback, but instead they employed industrial excavation machinery and left kilometers of deep trenches digging out everything they could sell. We were concerned that some of that copper cabling could lead to plutonium residues.


How did you convince Washington and Moscow that we had a problem that needed to be addressed on a trilateral basis?

Washington was easy. We briefed then-Energy Department Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller and Under Secretary Ernie Moniz. They were very supportive of our efforts. We also had a great advocate for our effort in Andy Weber in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Moscow was more difficult. The Ministry of Atomic Energy was reluctant to get involved.

What convinced them?

I traveled to Sarov, the Russian Los Alamos, and showed director Rady Ilkaev the photos I had taken at Semipalatinsk. I asked him if he was really sure that they didn’t leave anything of concern behind. He talked to Ministry of Atomic Energy officials that night and sent the scientists who conducted some of the most important experiments at the site to see me the next morning. The Russian scientists knew this was important and they convinced Moscow that we should work together to mitigate the risks at the test site.

Why did you need the Russians if you had good relations with the Kazakh nuclear establishment and the test site was now under their jurisdiction?

Semipalatinsk is huge, almost the size of New Jersey and five times as big as the Nevada Test Site, so we wouldn’t know all the places to look. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Besides, we would have little idea of how dangerous it was to dig around without knowing what we should expect to find. Only the Russians knew where to look and what to look for.

Did the Russians scientists cooperate?

The Russian scientists were terrific. Without their cooperation, none of this could have been done. Director Ilkaev cleared the way with Moscow. The two key scientists from Sarov, Dr. Yuri M. Styazhkin and Dr. Viktor S. Stepanyuk, felt it was their moral duty to help solve the problems they left behind. They spent the better part of the next 15 years working on this problem. Unfortunately, Dr. Styazhkin passed away and was not able to celebrate with us when we had a small gathering of scientists at the site last September, just before the official unveiling of the monument in October.

What about the American side?

The key technical person was my Los Alamos colleague, Dr. Philip Hemberger. He took over the daily scientific leadership and provided the trusted interface with the Russian scientists. He also spent a better part of the next decade, and his career, working on this problem. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) managed the project with oversight from Andy Weber in the Pentagon.

What was physically done to secure the sites?

One site required an enormous sarcophagus, at another huge metal vessels were filled with concrete and special materials, and some of the tunnels were filled with concrete. The entire region in question at the test site was equipped with video cameras, seismic sensors, and drones feeding information back to a sophisticated control room.

Why did the operation take so long?

The test site is huge. The Soviets conducted nuclear tests and other experiments there for 40 years. It involved their two weapons laboratories and multiple defense agencies. They were in a hurry, especially in the early years, and likely did not keep complete records. And, some of the key people were no longer alive. There were three countries involved and a lot of bureaucracy and diplomatic tussles, but the personal trust between the scientists helped to overcome the logjams.

Was the length of time not related to lack of cooperation from the Russian side since they were reluctant to get involved in the first place?

Yes, there was reluctance, but some of it was quite justified. For example, they were concerned that if we start digging around in some of the suspected areas, but then pull out US support, we would leave the area more dangerous than it was before, because now we had shown the scavengers where to look. They wanted to move step by step—identify an area, take samples and analyze the risk, then remediate if necessary. Trust was built along the way, and they continued to roll out one problem area after another.

Who paid for all of this?

The Americans paid the entire bill. The project was managed by professionals from DTRA supported by Nunn-Lugar funds appropriated by the US Congress.

But why only American money?

The Russians were in no position to pay at the beginning of the project, as 1998 was a year of financial meltdown for the Russian economy. On the one hand, if we waited for them to pay, the copper cable thieves may have beat us to the nuclear materials. Likewise, the Kazakhs did not have the financial means, and they believed they were not responsible for creating the problem. On the other hand, the United States initiated the Nunn-Lugar program to reduce the nuclear risks we faced from the proliferation of nuclear weapons or materials resulting from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Washington, spanning three presidential administrations, was prepared and willing to pay. It was money well spent.

Is the problem fully resolved now?

No, it likely will never be. As the Russian scientist, Viktor Stepanyuk, wrote in one of his papers about the mission: “The ‘definitive reduction’ of proliferation risks … on the territory of the former Semipalatinsk Test Site can be realized only though comprehensive set of activities comprising physical protection, security, information, and legal protection.” I believe it will require the attention of all three countries for a long time to come. During my visit to Semipalatinsk last September and in subsequent discussions, we agreed to hold a trilateral technical workshop early next year on the long-term future of Semipalatinsk.

What were the secrets to success behind the Semipalatinsk Project?

The Semipalatinsk project serves as a remarkable example of how scientists can work together and how their efforts should be reinforced by governments to address serious proliferation problems. The trust and personal relationships developed among the scientists in all three countries were crucial. American Nunn-Lugar funds were crucial and the effective project management by DTRA was essential as the project expanded.

Do you see cooperation with the Russians as particularly important?

Yes. The United States and Russia have special responsibilities to lead the world’s efforts in nuclear safety and security. They own the bulk of the world’s nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, and nuclear facilities. The others pale in comparison. Semipalatinsk was only one example of how Russian and US scientists cooperated to make the world safer. Russian and American scientists believe strongly that we have much more work to do. But the strained relations between Moscow and Washington are impeding our efforts. I hope the Semipalatinsk story reminds them that nuclear cooperation is in the interests of both sides.

Finally, with success at Semipalatinsk, what keeps you awake at night now?

Most certainly, the nuclear hotspots around the world, namely, North Korea; Iran and Israel in the Middle East; and Pakistan and India in South Asia. Of equal concern, however, is getting all countries to take nuclear safety and security seriously. They require constant vigilance—one is never done. There are no simple technical fixes. International cooperation at all levels is required to ensure that world-class nuclear safety and security is practiced at all nuclear sites around the globe.

Editor's note: This interview was conducted by Beth Duff-Brown and originally appeared on the website of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

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