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
“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
“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.
“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
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.