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.
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The US officials declined to elaborate on the threat, citing classified intelligence.Skip to next paragraph
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Aktau, however, sits directly across the Caspian Sea from Russia’s Northern Caucasus region, where al Qaida-linked Islamic separatists are engaged in insurgencies in the republics of Dagestan and Chechnya.
US and Kazakhstan
Nazarbayev and President Barak Obama reaffirmed a goal of completing the transfer operation this year when they met in Washington in April during an international conference that Obama called as part of an initiative to secure the world’s vulnerable stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium by 2013, US officials said.
The US and Kazakhstan went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety and security of the operation. Engineers designed and built huge cranes, massive storage casks, special railcars and the new storage facility behind fences, gun towers and other security layers.
Special handling facilities had to be constructed at BN-350 and at the railhead where the casks were unloaded onto trucks for the drive to the storage site. Interior Ministry guards and armored personnel carriers protected the convoys.
Train tracks and roads had to be upgraded to bear the weight of the 110-ton casks, command centers and communications networks were set up and Kazakh Interior Ministry troops underwent five weeks of training at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, which designs safeguards for the US nuclear arsenal.
Precautions for secret nuclear transfer
A dry run was held last November in minus 40-degree temperatures, and the lessons learned were incorporated into the final procedures.
“We had to examine the hydraulic fluid in the cranes and other machinery to make sure it would withstand the low temperatures,” the second knowledgeable US official said. “We took every precaution we possibly could.”
For instance, the massive storage casks, built in Ukraine and Russia, each have two bolted-on seals and a third seal welded on, and they were secured inside the railcars with a special locking mechanism, the US official said.
“Even if the guards could not protect the convoys and terrorists were able to get to the casks, it would have taken hours to get to the material,” the official said.
The IAEA has licensed the new facility for 50 years, taking pressure off Kazakhstan to decide the materials’ final disposition. It could reap commercial benefits from the highly enriched uranium, which can be “blended down” into commercial reactor fuel, US officials said.
Before the Kazakhstan operation, the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy, helped relocate more than 2.75 tons of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium and plutonium, most of it of Soviet and US origin, to secure sites around the world.
Until Kazakhstan, the largest transfer operation returned nearly 1,000 pounds of highly enriched uranium — enough for 18 bombs — to Russia from Poland, a project that was completed in September.