Soviet Nuclear Test Site Now A Model For Safeguards A remote section of Kazakhstan was once the secret testing ground for the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Now, with the help of a $219 million U.S. program, this isolated plain is the perfect place to secure dangerous nuclear material left behind in Kazakhstan by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
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Soviet Nuclear Test Site Now A Model For Safeguards

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Soviet Nuclear Test Site Now A Model For Safeguards

Soviet Nuclear Test Site Now A Model For Safeguards

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This week, we've been reporting on a joint effort between the U.S. and Kazakhstan. The purpose: To secure tons of dangerous nuclear material - enough to produce nearly 800 nuclear bombs. The material originated in a former Soviet reactor on the Caspian Sea, and it was moved more than 1,500 miles to a remote, secret location.

NPR's Mike Shuster is the only foreign reporter who has seen both sites. Now, we have the final story in his three-part series.

(Soundbite of machinery)

MIKE SHUSTER: It ends quietly. This is the last step in the long and arduous effort to secure the plutonium and highly enriched uranium left behind in Kazakhstan by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With wire cutters and pliers, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency install special seals that certify the complete immobilization of a hundred tons of nuclear material sitting at a desolate location on the vast plains of Central Asia.

The IAEA's seals attest to the completion of years of work. It took a year just to bring the material here, the last of it arriving on Monday. The final seal attached yesterday in a small ceremony with dignitaries from Kazakhstan, the U.S. and Great Britain looking on, in a biting cold wind with the first winter's snow threatening.

(Soundbite of applause)

SHUSTER: The isolation of this area made it an ideal place to test nuclear weapons during the Soviet days. And Nobuhiro Muroya, the IAEA's senior official here, remarked on the irony of the region's history during a small luncheon yesterday after the final seal was put in place.

Mr. NOBUHIRO MUROYA (Operation Director, IAEA): It is a coincidence that in this nuclear test site, it was more than 450 nuclear weapons tested. But this site is at the same time now very safe and very peaceful. And we would like this material to stay calm and peacefully for a long time.

SHUSTER: That is indeed the intention of the American and Kazakh governments. The storage casks are designed to last half a century.

There were numerous scientific, physical and political obstacles to overcome. The scale of the project was daunting.

Dr. ANNE HARRINGTON (Deputy Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration): Unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever been attempted anywhere.

SHUSTER: Anne Harrington is the deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the lead American agency on the project. She and other officials from the U.S. and Kazakhstan flew out to the storage site for yesterday's ceremony.

The United States spent $219 million on the project. And in Harrington's view, it was a modest price to make sure that a great deal of dangerous nuclear material is no longer vulnerable to theft or attack.

Dr. HARRINGTON: If you consider that the material could have produced 775 nuclear weapons, if you divide 219 million by 775, that's a pretty cheap price for a nuclear weapon. And I can't imagine how you would calculate the damage that one nuclear weapon would cause set off in a U.S. city, let alone 775.

SHUSTER: Kazakhstan's government was represented by Kairat Umarov, the deputy foreign minister. Umarov believes that Kazakhstan's commitment to secure such nuclear materials has benefits far beyond the borders of his own country.

DR. KAIRAT UMAROV (Deputy Foreign Minister, Kazakhstan): There are some groups in the world which would like to use this kind of a material for producing dirty bombs. So if we are securing it, then we are securing it not only for ourselves but for the rest of the world as well.

SHUSTER: Umarov was an anti-nuclear activist in the late 1980s, pushing for the closing of the Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk.

The Soviets carried out hundreds of nuclear explosions with little concern for the welfare of the people living nearby, says Richard Hoagland, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan.

Ambassador RICHARD HOAGLAND (U.S. to Kazakhstan): The nuclear tests of the Soviet Union, whether they were above ground or underground - close to 450 tests - were conducted on the territory of Kazakhstan. Hugely polluted a very large portion of the country. And to this very day, there are still people who are physically suffering from the results of that.

SHUSTER: Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev did close the test site in 1991, even before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since then, he has actively pursued policies to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and materials. And so now, most of Kazakhstan's plutonium and highly enriched uranium is beyond the reach of those who might covet it.

For good, says Leonard Spector. Spector was in the Energy Department in the 1990s, now with the Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Washington.

Mr. LEONARD SPECTOR (Deputy Director, Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies): This is now truly secure. And there's no question about it. This is not something that the Iranians or others may be keeping an eye on, wondering if they can grab it some day. That's over. This stuff will never be available to another country.

SHUSTER: Still, around the world there is much more of this dangerous nuclear material that is not secure. The hope is that the Kazakhstan example will help to convince other governments to take the same approach.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Astana, Kazakhstan.

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