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US and Kazakhstan complete secret transfer of Soviet nuclear materials

In the largest nuclear transfer operation ever mounted, US and Kazakh officials moved 11 tons of highly enriched uranium and 3 tons of plutonium some 1,890 miles by rail and road across the Central Asian country.

By Jonathan S. LandayMcClatchy Newspapers / November 17, 2010


Working under extraordinary secrecy, the US and Kazakh governments in the past year have moved nuclear material that could have been used to make more than 770 bombs from a location feared vulnerable to terrorist attack to a new high-security facility.

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In the largest such operation ever mounted, US and Kazakh officials transferred 11 tons of highly enriched uranium and 3 tons of plutonium some 1,890 miles by rail and road across the Central Asian country.

The transfer culminated a project spanning three American presidencies that was intended to prevent the material from falling into the wrong hands.

The last of 12 shipments arrived Monday at the new state-of-the-art storage facility in remote northeastern Kazakhstan, near the border with Russia and China. The 13-day journey began at the mothballed BN-350 fast-breeder reactor in the Caspian Sea port of Aktau. McClatchy agreed to withhold the precise location of the storage site for security reasons.

“The most immediate and extreme threat [to international security] is a terrorist acquiring nuclear material,” said Thomas D’Agostino, the head of the US National Nuclear Security Administration, the overseer of the US nuclear arsenal. “This takes one of those pieces, a big chunk, off the table.”

The sparsely populated region where the storage facility is also is home to the defunct Semipalatinsk Test Site, a 7,000-square-mile expanse of steppe where the Soviet Union conducted more than 460 nuclear test explosions from 1949 to 1990 while Kazakhstan was a Soviet republic.

“The project is a very significant technical achievement,” D’Agostino said in an interview Nov. 8 that McClatchy agreed to embargo until the operation was completed. “This isn’t stuff you just put on a truck and drive across a country.”

The United States spent $219 million on the project. Britain kicked in $4 million and Kazakhstan also contributed some funding, US officials said.

“The cost is very, very small compared to the cost of the wrong people getting their hands" on the material, asserted a US official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the project publicly.

How the project began - threat of "nuclear sabotage?"

Former President Bill Clinton began the project in 1996, when the US helped Kazakhstan inventory the spent nuclear fuel that had accumulated at BN-350, which started producing plutonium for Soviet nuclear weapons in 1972. The reactor also provided power to Aktau.

The year before the project commenced, Kazakhstan had returned 1,410 nuclear warheads to Moscow that it inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

US experts helped shut down BN-350 in 1999 and build a storage facility there until a more secure site could be found for nearly 3,000 assemblies that contained more than 140 tons of spent fuel. The spent fuel included the 14 tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the largest stock of such materials outside the world’s nuclear-armed countries.

“We needed to ensure their physical security until we could decide where it could be stored,” said a second US official, who requested anonymity because of the project’s sensitivity. “There were no monitoring systems, only some physical security, but it did not meet IAEA standards,” a reference to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Under former President George W. Bush, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s government agreed to build the new storage facility at the opposite end of the country from Aktau because “they were nervous over the threat of nuclear sabotage” at BN-350, the second US official continued.

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