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U.S., Russian scientists worked secretly for years to protect nuclear material from scavengers

  • Article by: ELLEN BARRY
  • New York Times
  • August 17, 2013 - 6:06 PM

 

Working in top secret over a period of 17 years, Russian and U.S. scientists collaborated to remove hundreds of pounds of plutonium and highly enriched uranium — enough to construct at least a dozen nuclear weapons — from a remote, Soviet-era nuclear test site in Kazakhstan that had been overrun by metal scavengers, according to a report released last week by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard.

The report sheds light on a mysterious $150 million cleanup operation paid for in large part by the U.S. Defense Department, whose specialists feared that terrorists would discover the fissile material and use it to build a dirty bomb.

Over the years, hints emerged that something extraordinarily dangerous had been left behind in a warren of tunnels — like the U.S. aerial drones that circled over the site (looking for intruders) or the 2-meter-thick slab of steel-reinforced concrete that was poured over the earth.

Among the report’s revelations is that the Soviet testers left behind components, including high-purity plutonium, that could have been used to build not just a dirty bomb but a sophisticated nuclear device, a U.S. official told the report’s authors.

U.S. scientists spent years trying to coax information about Soviet-era testing from their counterparts in Russia, who had devoted careers to guarding the site’s secrets.

It was a white-knuckled effort at times, since local scavengers were regularly digging “within yards” of the fissile material.

Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, described his astonishment when he first visited the site in 1998, cruising past unattended gates. He told the report’s authors that he saw miles of trenches that had been dug by teams with excavating machines — evidence of what he called “a major industrial enterprise — which dug up miles of irradiated copper cable and sold it to Chinese dealers.

The report describes a project driven forward almost entirely by Russian and U.S. scientists, without the “elaborate, negotiated state-to-state agreements of the kind used for arms control during the Cold War.”

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