MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
We begin this hour with a story from Kazakhstan about a year-long effort to move roughly 100 tons of highly radioactive material. The shipments included enough plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nearly 800 nuclear weapons. The U.S. and the government of Kazakhstan have just finished transporting the material to a safe storage site in the northeast of the country. The project was years in the making and involved carrying the material both by rail and road across some 1,500 miles.
From Kazakhstan, NPR's Mike Shuster has this exclusive report.
MIKE SHUSTER: In 1973, a nuclear reactor began operations in the small Soviet city of Shevchenko, on the Caspian Sea. This nuclear plant produced steam heat and electricity for the people of the region. It produced fresh water for them to drink. It also produced one of the very important products, notes Richard Hoagland, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan.
Ambassador RICHARD HOAGLAND (U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan): It also provided the plutonium for the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons that potentially could have been used against the West.
SHUSTER: The plutonium was very high quality, especially suited for nuclear weapons. It's called ivory grade plutonium, says Leonard Spector, a former Energy Department official who first became of aware of this plant in the 1990s. Spector is now with the Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington.
Mr. LEONARD SPECTOR (Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies): And that's quite unusual. In a typical nuclear power plant, the plutonium is usable for nuclear weapons, but it's of a low quality, and would not be what you would seek. But this particular material at this reactor did have these attributes that made it really ideal for that purpose. And the reactor was sitting across the Caspian Sea from Iran.
SHUSTER: When the Soviet Union broke up, the city changed its name to Aktau and found itself part of a newly independent state, Kazakhstan. The leaders of Kazakhstan wanted to do something about the reactor, and they sought the help of the United States. Experts from the U.S. visited the Aktau nuclear power plant in the mid-'90s, and they first made some calculations on the back of an envelope to estimate its plutonium production capacity. It was a big number, says Eric Howden, who has been the U.S. project manager for securing the materials at the Aktau reactor since 2004.
Mr. ERIC HOWDEN (Project Manager, Aktau Nuclear Reactor): I'm not sure if I would say it was alarm, but certainly we understood the magnitude of the issue. And it was the largest stockpile of weapons-grade material outside of a weapons state that we were aware of.
(Soundbite of beeps)
SHUSTER: There are sophisticated security measures at the nuclear plant in Aktau now: Computerized gates and mantraps clank and beep. During the Soviet days, there were no such measures. The nuclear component of the complex was shut down in 1999, but the plant still produces electricity and steam heat for the city, burning natural gas. Three tons of plutonium and 10 tons of highly enriched uranium were left on the site, the equivalent of 775 nuclear weapons. Something had to be done about it.
(Soundbite of door shutting)
Mr. GENNADI PUGACHEV (Project Key Specialist, Aktau nuclear Reactor): (Through translator) Right now we're moving to a so-called dirty zone and we're going to leave from the second mark to the 27th mark. So it's a height 27 meters.
SHUSTER: Entering the plant's elevator is Gennadi Pugachev. For the past decade, he has been the key specialist on the Kazakh side, planning and implementing the movement of the nuclear materials from Aktau to a classified secure storage site in northeast Kazakhstan. The reactor was built above ground in order to give railroad cars access to the plant to bring in new nuclear fuel and cart out the plutonium and other nuclear materials the plant produced. The joint Kazakh-American operation to remove the dangerous material involved just those railroad tracks to bring specially manufactured casks to a newly built loading pad outside of the plant.
It has been a huge project that took several years to design just the casks. Built in Ukraine and Russia, each weighs 100 tons when filled and they are designed to last 50 years without leaking. A special crane built in China was installed to lift them onto the railcars. A big concern was safety, says Eric Howden.
Mr. HOWDEN: All equipment is load-tested at least at 120 percent of the actual live load to ensure that there are no accidents during live operations.
SHUSTER: And there weren't?
Mr. HOWDEN: Correct. There were no safety incidents during this entire project.
SHUSTER: All in all over the past year, 60 of these casks were transported more than 1,500 miles across Kazakhstan to a specially constructed security facility. The last delivery occurred on Monday, says Gennadi Pugachev.
Mr. PUGACHEV: (Through translator) You could say honestly, there's some feeling of relief of all the successful work that it was done, completed.
SHUSTER: Getting the casks across Kazakhstan involved hundreds of people. That's the subject of tomorrow's report.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, at a classified location in northeast Kazakhstan.
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