News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

New Report Reveals Details of U.S., Russian, Kazakh Collaboration

| August 15, 2013

17-year effort reduced one of the largest nuclear security threats since collapse of the Soviet Union

For Immediate Release

Cambridge, MA -- In October, 2012, at the foot of a rocky hillside in eastern Kazakhstan, a group of American, Russian, and Kazakh nuclear scientists and engineers gathered for a ceremony marking the completion of a secret 17-year, $150 million operation to secure plutonium in the tunnels of Degelen Mountain—an abandoned site of Soviet underground nuclear testing.

The Project on Managing the Atom, at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, today releases the report "Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-Year Mission to Secure a Dangerous Legacy of Soviet Nuclear Testing." Authors Eben Harrell and David E. Hoffman report for the first time the details of one of the largest nuclear security operations of the post-Cold War years. It is a story of how dedicated scientists and engineers in three countries overcame suspicions, secrecy, bureaucracy, and logistical obstacles to secure more than a dozen bombs worth of plutonium that had been left behind at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Based on documents and interviews in the U.S. and Kazakhstan with scientists and officials, Harrell and Hoffman tell how American nuclear experts learned of the unsecured test site and discovered that large-scale scrap-metal scavenging operations were coming within yards of plutonium that could be stolen and sold for nuclear devices.

Recognizing the danger, then-outgoing Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried S. Hecker used personal connections with Soviet and Russian scientists to push for action to secure the site. The laborious operation unfolded over 17 tense years.

The authors suggest that the operation's success was a "very close call."

  • Russian weapons experts who had worked in the nuclear testing program in Kazakhstan were initially unwilling to return to secure the site. It was not until they were confronted with photographs of the scavenging efforts that they were convinced of the need to return.
  • For periods immediately before and after the 9/11 attacks, nuclear security operations at Degelen Mountain were suspended even as scavenging at the site continued while bureaucracies in both the United States and Kazakhstan dithered over funding for the project.
  • Russia's concern with preserving secrets about its nuclear weapons left U.S. and Kazakh partners in the dark about some of the most sensitive and highest risk locations. It was not until 2005 that Russia revealed that as much as 100 kilograms of additional plutonium was still unsecured on the site.
  • Although the risk of plutonium theft has been substantially reduced, work to secure areas of the site continues and there may yet be further surprises.

The authors also offer "learning points" for those involved in nuclear security policy, including:

  • The legacy of Cold War superpower suspicion led to dangerous blunders and miscalculations; the culture of secrecy took years to penetrate.
  • Strong personal, unofficial relationships among U.S., Russian and Kazakh scientists were critical in breaking through these barriers.
  • The ongoing risks at Degelen Mountain and other test sites highlight the extraordinarily long-term dangers from nuclear tests for thousands of years to come; this threat highlights the need for tighter IAEA safeguards as well as for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by the U.S. and other holdouts.

About the Authors:
Eben Harrell is an associate at the Belfer Center's Managing the Atom Project, and is a Boston-based writer and editor. He previously worked in the London bureau of Time Magazine.

David E. Hoffman is a veteran Washington Post reporter and editor and the author of The Dead Hand: the Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Related links:
Washington Post Outlook section: "Saving the world at Plutonium Mountain"
New York Times: "A Secret Race for Abandoned Nuclear Material"

For more information:
James F. Smith, Communications Director
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 617-495-7831


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wilke, Sharon and James F. Smith. “New Report Reveals Details of U.S., Russian, Kazakh Collaboration.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 15, 2013.

The Authors