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Deadly Debris Of The Cold War
by James Dunnigan
September 18, 2013

 It was recently revealed that for the past 17 years (until 2012) there had been a secret operation to deal with the nuclear material scattered around the Soviet era Semipalatinsk nuclear research and testing facility in Kazakhstan. Semipalatinsk was not included in the places that needed nuclear weapons grade radioactive material removed to keep it out of circulation. Soviet nuclear weapons officials had insisted that the nuclear material at Semipalatinsk had already been taken care of. American nuclear researchers aiding the official nuclear disarmament operation stumbled upon the Kazakhstan facility in the 1990s, and found that it still contained lots of nuclear material and that this was apparently not generally known because the abandoned facility was overrun by illegal scrap collectors. Semipalatinsk consisted of many kilometers of tunnels where underground nuclear tests or other nuclear research was conducted. The tunnels were largely sealed, along with other places containing bits of nuclear material. But the area had been discovered by poor Kazakhs who had, since the early 1990s, been scouring the place for scrap metal or anything else that could be sold. The scavengers didn’t know about buried nuclear material, but their excavations and dismantling activities were bringing them closer to such dangerous stuff. The Kazakhstan government was not aware of the danger and had not bothered to try and keep the scavengers out. In order to keep this a secret, and to get the nuclear material removed or permanently sealed, a secret deal was made with the Kazakh government and in 17 years of largely clandestine work the deed was done. All this cost $150 million, paid for by the United States. 

Kazakhstan had earlier, with the help of the United States, already completed the official removal of 13 tons of weapons grade uranium and plutonium (enough to make nearly 800 nuclear bombs) to a secure storage site (and eventual conversion into fuel for nuclear power plants). All this was accomplished by a post-Cold War agreement between the United States and Russia to account for all Soviet nuclear weapons and dismantle most of them. The U.S. provided funding and technical assistance, but the hard work was carried out by Russian experts and diplomats. Semipalatinsk was not included because the Soviet bureaucracy thought it didn’t count even though there turned out to be some 200 kg (440 pounds) of plutonium in some of the 131 tunnels and 13 test shafts where 456 nuclear tests had taken place over four decades. The last test was in 1989 and the site was officially closed in 1991. Many of those tests were not successful, leaving behind buried plutonium. The Soviet engineers believed that whatever plutonium there remained at Semipalatinsk was so hard to get at that it was not worth mentioning. Later visits by American scientists found this was not true. There was a lot of plutonium and other nuclear material that was easily extracted. Most of the loose nuclear material was at the Degelen Mountain part of the 18,000 square kilometer Semipalatinsk complex.

Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine inherited nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 (and everyone agreed that whatever Soviet assets were on the territory of the 14 new nations created from parts of the Soviet Union were the property of the new country). Russia, with the financial and diplomatic help of Western nations, bought and dismantled the nukes owned by those three nations.

Meanwhile, the Russians had other, uniquely Russian, problems, like the Kazakhstan site that was recently revealed. They had a lot (tons) of other highly radioactive material in circulation, much of it in powder form and largely used for medical and industrial purposes. Particularly worrisome are the hundreds of Radiothermal Generators (RTGs) Russia set up in remote parts of the country during the Soviet era. The RTGs were similar to the power supplies found on some space satellites, using radioactive material to generate heat, and thus electricity, for radio beacons and signal repeaters in remote areas. In the early 1990s, the Russians weren't even sure where some of these RTGs were and there were cases of civilians finding them, cracking them open, and being injured, or killed, from the radiation. The Russians noted that there have been many attempts to steal radioactive material in Russia, but none, so far as is known, have succeeded. All of the RTGs were eventually found and destroyed. The Kazakhstan site was similar in that a lot of the radioactive material was deadly but not suitable for nuclear weapons. Terrorists could use this stuff for dirty bombs and the radioactive debris was spread all over the Kazakhstan site. That’s why the cleanup had to be secret, lest terrorists find out about it and offer large cash payments for whoever could sneak such dirty bomb material out of the site. That never happened. The Kazakhstan site also contained enough nuclear material for a dozen or more nuclear bombs, although this stuff was spread over a large area.

There was one last problem. Russian officials admitted that, during the 1990s, 5-10 pounds of enriched uranium and several ounces of weapons grade of plutonium had been stolen from their nuclear power facilities. What the Russians did not mention (perhaps because the Russian nuclear bureaucracy had never kept a record of it) was the stray material in places like the Kazakhstan site. Some of the officially missing radioactive material was later discovered, in small quantities, in Western Europe, Turkey, and Russia as the thieves sought to sell it. The amount the Russians admit to losing is not enough to make a bomb, and much of the missing stuff could be accounting and handling errors (both common in the Russian bureaucracy).

In the last two decades the only radioactive material smuggled out of Russia was small quantities and usually low-level stuff unsuitable for a bomb. Most Russian nukes have been disassembled and their nuclear material turned into power-plant fuel. The remaining nukes are under very tight security and most of their nuclear scientists were given financial and career incentives (paid for by the U.S.) to leave nuclear weapons work behind. Nevertheless, for two decades, breathless new stories of Russian "loose nukes" were a media staple on slow news days.

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