The Race to Secure Kazakhstan's 'Plutonium Mountain'

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Marco Werman: We go from power in Pakistan to nuclear material in Kazakhstan now, and this next story reads almost like a spy caper – a race to secure a huge cache of plutonium largely abandoned in one of the republics of the former Soviet Union. But the operation wasn't carried out by US or Russian government operatives. It was done largely by Russian and American scientists. It took seventeen years and it was finally concluded just last fall. The tale of this remarkable effort is told in a new report from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Eben Harrell is one of the authors and he joins us now. Tell us about this place you call "Plutonium Mountain". Why was it so dangerous?

Eben Harrell: It was part of this sprawling nuclear weapons complex that the Soviet Union constructed during the Cold War. It's where they went to test their nuclear weapons. Many of these tests weren't just to determine whether a nuclear weapon would go off; they were also to study the characteristics of plutonium. And a lot of those tests left behind large portions of plutonium metal. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Kazakhstan in the early '90s they left most of that material in place.

Werman: Right. So they were using this place as a test site all through the Cold War? I mean how radioactive was it?

Harrell: Well, the radioactivity was a concern inside the tunnels. The tunnels were reasonably well sealed because of just the nature of the geology in the area, so that wasn't a concern. The main concern was that terrorists or the operatives of sort of rouge states might steal the material.

Werman: I mean given those risks, you'd think that the KGB would be involved, the Russian army, but you say in your report that it was mostly scientists.

Harrell: Yeah, that's correct. The story of how it all sort of came to light was really actually the result of the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory which is our main nuclear weapons lab. His name is Siegfried Hecker. And as he was retiring he decided that he was going to become a "plutonium hunter". He was going to task himself with thinking about, "In this massive sprawling nuclear weapons complex where might there be caches of plutonium that might have sort of fallen off the radar?" And they knew about this testing facility at Semipalatinsk, was the name of the secret city, and he had connections with Russian scientists and he quickly learned that this was a big problem.

Werman: So how classified an operation was this?

Harrell: As al-Qaeda's nuclear ambitions came to light after the invasion in Afghanistan, it became a hugely sensitive and secretive operation. But at first there was a sense that it was just an environmental concern over the long term, but as the scientists began to look through their records or talk to the appropriate people, I think it became apparent to them that there was material there that could be reconstituted into an intact nuclear weapon that would potentially obliterate a city.

Werman: Did anybody ever try and get plutonium out of there?

Harrell: In a few instances the chambers where the plutonium experiments were performed were breached by scavengers, so they were within a few feet of material that could be used to build nuclear weapons. It was a very close call.

Werman: What kind of communication was there between the scientists and say people in Moscow and the government?

Harrell: Right. So that's an interesting element of this operation, how it really sort of trickled up, and eventually it got the level of world leaders. So in 2010, this was a good fifteen years after the operation really sort of began. Obama held a summit on nuclear security in Washington and he met with the Kazakh Head of State in Medvedev[sounds like] and at that meeting they discussed this issue and they pledged that they would get it finished by the next summit and it was completed.

Werman: So how did the scientists finally seal up Plutonium Mountain?

Harrell: They've immobilized the material with concrete which actually has a little bit of special sauce which was classified, but as I understand it has a little bit of iron that will form a chemical bond with the plutonium that makes it just more difficult to separate and recycle into a weapon. But unfortunately there has never been any long-term studies on cement immobilization of plutonium.

Werman: So it's hard to say that this is really inaccessible forever?

Harrell: Well, that's right. I was speaking with a Kazakh scientist and I was asking him, "At what point can you sort of clean your hands and say, 'We're done here,'?" and he said never. But that's a problem a whole heap of the nuclear industry on both the civilian and military side, so it's not unique to this area.

Werman: Eben Harrell is the co-author of "Plutonium Mountain" and an associate on the project on managing the atom at Harvard's Belfer Center. Eben, thanks very much for coming on.

Harrell: Thank you.