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Siegfried Hecker Acts on Semipalatinsk-21

Posted on 19 August 2013 by Jerry

Without major headlines, a few significant scientists of three nations lobbied their governments and secured permission to spend seventeen years closing and cleaning up one of the world’s major nuclear weapons test sites.  They ended up removing enough highly radioactive plutonium that if extracted by terrorists, could have allowed the construction of dozens of nuclear weapons.

Bypassing long drawn out formal negotiations between the countries, scientists worked from the bottom up lobbying largely mid level officials in the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan.  They wanted the three nations to allow the trading and yet retention of national secrets so all three countries could understand the magnitude of the work that was required.  In an effort to protect national secrets the project was never reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Although independent of the United Nations, the IAEA reports to the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council.

A report prepared by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, identified Siegfried S. Hecker, a retired director of Los Alamos, as the instigator and leader of the effort.  In 1995 after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Hecker and a small group from Los Alamos were told during a visit to Kazakhstan that there were probably significant deposits of plutonium buried at the unguarded site of over 456 Soviet nuclear explosive tests.  They were also told of numerous tunnels containing nuclear materials dug into Degelen Mountain at the Semipalatinsk-21 test site that covers an area nearly the size of Belgium.

The report entitled “Plutonium Mountain – Inside the 17 year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing” makes for good reading (see link below). Amongst other things, it follows the actions of Kairat Kadyrzhanov, a metallurgist who once worked at the site who warned scavengers about the nuclear material and radioactivity.  Undeterred the scavengers grew their operations to include heavy mining equipment and placed armed guards around their scavenging areas to protect their sites.  Later when analyzing these efforts scientists discovered the scavengers had come within yards of deposits of fissile materials.

Over the 17 years from 1996 to 2012, over $150 million was spent to retrieve material and fill tunnels and bore holes with a special concrete that reduced the security threat posed by the facility.  American aerial drones provided surveillance of the site for much of that period.   In October 2012 a group of scientists and engineers from the U.S., Russia and Kazakhstan unveiled a simple monument whose inscription in three languages read “1996-2012. The world has become safer”.

This story reinforces the conclusion that determined individuals can accomplish major objectives if they set their minds to it.  This cooperative effort illustrates that government officials at any level can decide to make a difference by championing worthy efforts.  The field does not matter.  Whether it is a ban on genetically modified foods, an end to the use of primates for drug research or the end of a planned new pipeline to deliver more polluting oil to the market and environment, individual actions can make a difference.  We just have to decide.

For a high level description of past efforts to safeguard nuclear weapons see this blog’s March 30, 2012 posting of  “U.S. Secures, Reduces and Manages World Nuclear Materials”. Use the following links to obtain more information or see source documents for this article:

http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/23327/plutonium_mountain.html (Scroll down to the bottom of the page and select “A PDF of the full report is available here.  Click the report title to obtain the PDF)

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/world/asia/a-secret-race-for-abandoned-nuclear-material.html

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