WMD Nonproliferation: A Long-Standing Partnership to Secure “The Polygon”

Members from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the National Nuclear Center (NNC) walk from tunnel closure areas on Degelen Mountain at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in eastern Kazakhstan. Credit: Andrea Chaney, DTRA

The Semipalatinsk Test Site dates back to the origin of the Soviet Union’s nuclear program. Established in 1947 and referred to as “The Polygon,” the site covers nearly 7,000 square miles of remote steppe in eastern Kazakhstan. Over a 40 year period, the Soviets conducted 456 nuclear explosions at Semipalatinsk, 116 above ground and 340 underground.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has been quietly carrying out a collaborative nonproliferation effort at Semipalatinsk Test Site with the government of the Republic of Kazakhstan for more than 26 years.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the nuclear testing not only ceased, but many of the scientists and military personnel abandoned the site and fled the country. They left behind a vast complex of tunnels and boreholes across the test site. Most worrisome, the Soviets left unexpended nuclear materials, completely unsecure, presenting an extreme danger to the public and a significant proliferation risk to the world. The people of the newly-formed Republic of Kazakhstan looked to their new government to solve the problem.

“There was a very strong non-nuclear sentiment in the newly formed country of Kazakhstan at the time,” said Luke Kluchko who was the first project manager from the then Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), now DTRA, who assisted in helping Kazakhstan recover from the disaster left behind from the Soviets.

“The country’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, immediately declared the site closed. There was a cancelled nuclear test that the Soviets had been preparing which remained in a tunnel for a number of years until they could figure out what to do with it,” Kluchko said.

To properly eliminate the workings of the test site, Kazakhstan created the National Nuclear Center (NNC) on May 15, 1993. The current General Director for the NNC, Erlan Gadletovich Batyrbekov, said that after the closing of the test site, a new set of issues came up that needed to be resolved by their government.

“It was necessary to eliminate the infrastructure of nuclear weapons testing,” Batyrbekov said. “It was necessary to resolve the issues associated with eliminating the consequences of testing such weapons. There was much concern about how to accomplish this large and serious task.”

In the summer of 1994, Kluchko represented the DNA as part of a U.S. interagency expedition to the test site that spent six weeks assessing the Degelen Mountain area of the Semipalatinsk Test Site. After the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, and test detonations of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater became prohibited, the Soviets used the Degelen Mountain site for 186 of the 340 underground nuclear tests conducted at Semipalatinsk.

“As a group, we were able to suggest to the NNC leadership that it would be in everyone’s best interest to quickly and safely seal the nuclear test tunnels,” Kluchko said. “All whose portals were wide open, 181 of them,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, the Republic of Kazakhstan sent an official request to United States Secretary of Defense William Perry to consider providing assistance to safely eliminate its infrastructure of nuclear testing. The assistance would come from the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, which would be absorbed into DTRA in 1998.

“The project started in earnest,” said Kluchko. “Within a year we destroyed the first tunnel and did about 60 tunnels per year. Essentially within 36 months, we were able to complete the infrastructure elimination process,” he said.

Batyrbekov said that as of today, the entire infrastructure has been rendered safe.

Americans and Kazakhstanis in open field with mountains in backdrop
Members of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the National Nuclear Center in Kazakhstan, stand in front of Degelen Mountain at the Semipalatinsk Test Site where 181 underground test tunnels were destroyed in the 1990s. Credit: Andrea Chaney, DTRA

“The infrastructure has been put in a state which will not allow it to be used again for the purposes for which it was created,” he proudly stated. “But after the elimination of the infrastructure, there were other goals, specifically the elimination of the consequences of nuclear testing,” he said.

“This kind of work is being continued to eliminate focal points where there is sensitive information in terms of nonproliferation,” he said. “All of this needs to be eliminated and that is exactly what we are doing with DTRA’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program.”

Several years after the initial Degelen Mountain project concluded, the NNC started a program to comprehensively evaluate the entire Semipalatinsk Test Site for radiological concerns. They worked their way from the north side of the site to the south side and saw there were areas where nuclear material was still present, and in some cases, in concentrations that would be considered a proliferation risk.

DTRA once again partnered with the NNC to eliminate the remaining risk. In 2013 the two agencies agreed to conduct a full, systematic survey of the Experimental Field where the earliest nuclear tests took place, and concluded there was still work to be done.

“Initially, material left behind from some of the atmospheric or surface tests remained evenly dispersed on the surface,” said Mark Gibson, current program manager for DTRA activities at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. “In some cases, we could dig up these concentrations and take to secure storage off-site. In other cases where it was less concentrated, we’d plow the areas and further dilute it so it would be less easily detectable for someone looking.”

Batyrbekov praised the work done by the NNC alongside DTRA.

“DTRA is probably one of our biggest partners in the entire history of the National Nuclear Center, not only in terms of the financial support we receive, but also in terms of the significance of the projects that we implemented,” he said. “The elimination of infrastructure – the scope of this work is very serious.”

Batyrbekov said his team continues to conduct a realistic radiological assessment of the territory at the Semipalatinsk Test Site today, and are more than 70 percent complete with the goal of surveying the entire territory by 2021.

Gibson said the partnership between the NNC was built on the likes of his predecessors, like Kluchko, and continues to remain rock solid through today.

“It’s important for us to maintain a relationship with the NNC and the Government of Kazakhstan,” Gibson said. “I’ve grown used to saying the proliferation risk has been greatly reduced here, but it will never be zero; that’s just the reality of a former nuclear test site.”

“I give a lot of credit to Kazakhstan for embracing a nonproliferation regime in circumstances that were not ideal for them,” said Gibson. “I think our work at the Experimental Field has been an extension of making the world a safer place.”

Source: DTRA, edited for context and format by Global Biodefense.


‘Ground Zero’ at the Former Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Kazakhstan

UN News Special Report / Aug 29, 2019

Every year on August 29, at the initiative of Kazakhstan, the UN and its Member States mark the International Day against Nuclear Tests. This year, the Day coincides with the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan. UN News traveled to the remote, eerily beautiful region, for this special report. 

Fact Sheet: History of Trilateral Threat Reduction Cooperation at the Former Semipalatinsk Test Site

President Barack Obama White House Archives / March 12, 2012

Evidence of scavenging activity, coupled with the increased focus on nuclear terrorism after September 11, led to an assessment that nuclear material remaining in the tunnels was vulnerable. Russia, Kazakhstan, and the U.S. concluded that remnant material at the site was vulnerable enough to require a sustained effort to secure areas of STS. Scientists and policymakers identified over 40 tunnels that posed sufficient risk to be included in the work plan. DoD’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program managed the project for the United States, with technical support from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Work crews entombed the material in special cement, plugged and collapsed the tunnels, and resealed and concealed the tunnel portals. The special cement rendered the nuclear material inaccessible except through a large-scale, easily-observable mining and recovery effort.

With Courage and Persistence: Eliminating and Securing WMD with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Programs

Joseph Harahan, Defense Threat Reduction Agency (.pdf) / 2014

The first urgent nonproliferation project with Kazakhstan had nothing to do the START Treaty. Known as Project Sapphire, this effort was one of the most spectacular projects of the entire post-Cold War years. It began quietly in Kazakhstan’s first year of independence. In the fall of 1992 Professor Vladimir Sergeyev Shkolnik, the newly appointed director of the Kazakhstan Atomic Energy Agency visited the Ulbinsky (Ulba) Metallurgy Plant and was informed by that one building in the industrial complex warehoused more than 1,000 containers of highly enriched uranium (HEU), becoming part of Kazakhstan’s nuclear inheritance in the 1990s. Physical security at the Ulba plant was far below standards. “There was metal fence,” U.S. Ambassador William H. Courtney later explained, “and a babushka, or a woman who would open the metal fence. People could drive their personal cars into and out of the facility without being checked. Padlocks were pretty primitive. There were no alarms by normal standards.” Andrew Webber also reported that the factory had packing crates, marked for shipping to Iran. This information was alarming, since some analysts believed Iran was seeking weapons-grade materials.

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