Antinuclear

Australian news, and some related international items

Saving the world at plutonium mountain


Such hidden repositories might be found elsewhere, wherever nations have tested nuclear weapons or carried out other research on fissile materials such as plutonium. Will all that scientific collaboration and goodwill be readily available?

It is true, as the plaque at Degelen Mountain attests, that the world is safer thanks to this operation. But it is also true that the scars left by nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War will last for millennia.

Saving the world at plutonium mountain https://thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/18/08/2013/saving-the-world-at-plutonium-mountain Published: 18 Aug 2013 -Updated: 30 Jan 2022,  By David E Hoffman and Eban Harrell Last October, at the foot of a rocky hillside near here, at a spot known as Degelen Mountain, several dozen Kazakh, Russian and American nuclear scientists and engineers gathered for a ceremony. After a few speeches, they unveiled a three-sided stone monument, etched in English, Russian and Kazakh, which declared:

“1996-2012. The world has become safer.”

The modest ribbon-cutting marked the conclusion of one of the largest and most complex nuclear security operations since the Cold War. The secret mission was to secure plutonium — enough to build a dozen or more nuclear weapons — that Soviet authorities had buried at the testing site years before and forgotten, leaving it vulnerable to terrorists and rogue states.

The effort spanned 17 years, cost $150m and involved a complex mix of intelligence, science, engineering, politics and sleuthing. This account is based on documents and interviews with Kazakh, Russian and US participants, and reveals the scope of the operation for the first time. The effort was almost entirely conceived and implemented by scientists and government officials operating without formal agreements among the nations involved. Many of these scientists were veterans of Cold War nuclear-testing programs, but they overcame their mistrust and joined forces to clean up and secure the Semipalatinsk testing site, a dangerous legacy of the nuclear arms race.

They succeeded, but what they accomplished here may have to be done all over again if the walls of secrecy ever come down and reveal security vulnerabilities in North Korea or Iran, or in other states that have developed the atomic bomb, including China, Pakistan, India and Israel.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union carried out more than 450 nuclear explosive tests at the Semipalatinsk site, which sprawls over a portion of the Kazakh plains slightly larger than Connecticut. Most of the tests involved atomic explosions, while others were carried out to improve weapons safety, in part by examining the impact of conventional explosives on plutonium metal. A network of tunnels built under Degelen Mountain became the epicentre of these tests.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russians gradually abandoned the site. Economic conditions in the main city near the testing grounds grew desperate, and residents began to search the tunnels for metal to sell. They used mining equipment to steal copper from the electrical wiring and to scavenge rails that once carried nuclear devices far underground for explosive testing.

Conceived in 2000, Operation Groundhog suffered repeated delays, including work stoppages during the frigid winters. But with the nuclear ambitions of Al Qaeda coming into clearer view in documents seized during the invasion of Afghanistan, US officials felt the urgency of preventing plutonium from falling into the wrong hands. The concrete dome over the holes at the Balapan was completed in August 2003.

Just a few miles away, however, Degelen Mountain was still unattended, and scavengers continued to burrow in close proximity to weapons-grade plutonium. When a senior Pentagon official, Andy Weber, met with Russian and Kazakh officials in mid-2003 to discuss extending projects to the mountain, the Russians were still ambivalent and did not reveal all they knew. 

They offered the locations of three more experiments, at two sites. If work at these sample locales went well, and if the Russians felt confident that the Americans were not committing espionage, Minatom would consider sharing more information.

As it turned out, these sample locations weren’t in Degelen Mountain at all but in a nearby bunker. They involved three “kolbas” — large metal cylinders, insulated with Kevlar and fiberglass and designed to contain explosions equivalent to the force of 440 pounds of dynamite. They were most often placed deep within Degelen Mountain for plutonium tests, but three had been used above ground and were stored in the bunker.

The US Defence Threat Reduction Agency agreed to work on the three kolbas,one of which had been pried open by scavengers, and to defer action on Degelen Mountain. Operation Matchbox, begun in 2004, secured the kolbas by filling them with a concrete mixture.

In the spring of 2005, US scientists finally got the breakthrough they’d been waiting for when Russia released all the remaining information about Degelen Mountain. But it wasn’t pretty. 

The mountain contained about 220 pounds of recoverable plutonium — enough for more than a dozen nuclear bombs. Even more surprising, Russia revealed that at one location, the Soviets had left behind some high-purity plutonium and equipment that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. 

This disclosure alarmed US officials but the Russians were extremely cautious. In their reports to the US side, they used code names for 16 sites in and around Degelen Mountain, ranking them according to proliferation risk. Three of the sites were found to present the “maximum risk” if they fell into the wrong hands and were given the code names X, Y and Z. 

One day, while crews were drilling a hole at the Y site, a concrete retaining wall collapsed, exposing the plutonium and equipment. Eventually, material from two of the sites was sent back to Russia, and the third was entombed in concrete.

Scavengers continued to raid the tunnels until 2008, when Kazakhstan finally declared Degelen Mountain an “exclusion zone” — which allowed US officials to erect warning signs — and when Kazakh security forces got the authority to expel the scavengers. 

Still, the work remained slow. In a 2010 summit in Washington that included 47 nations, President Obama arranged a personal meeting with Nazarbayev. Officials of the two nations then met with their Russian counterparts. The United States, Russia and Kazakhstan agreed in confidence to complete the work at Semipalatinsk by the next summit, scheduled for March 2012 in Seoul.

This high-level commitment galvanised the operation. For the first time, Kazakh crews worked through the winters, and American officials stayed on site in Semipalatinsk with them, while increased US funding meant four crews could work simultaneously instead of one. Obama, Nazarbayev and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced the completion of the work in Seoul, though the news was overshadowed by Obama’s “open mike” incident with Medvedev.

Such hidden repositories might be found elsewhere, wherever nations have tested nuclear weapons or carried out other research on fissile materials such as plutonium. Will all that scientific collaboration and goodwill be readily available? 

It is true, as the plaque at Degelen Mountain attests, that the world is safer thanks to this operation. But it is also true that the scars left by nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War will last for millennia.

February 3, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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