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August 21, 2013

Stanford fellow describes one of the greatest nuclear nonproliferation stories never told

Siegfried Hecker recognized dangers of nuclear materials left behind by collapse of Soviet Union and persuaded three nations to work together on the problem.


By Beth Duff-Brown

Siegfried Hecker, left, his research assistant Niko Milonopoulos and CiSAC consulting professor Chaim Braun stand at the site of ground zero of the first Soviet nuclear test. (Photo courtesy CiSAC)

More than 450 nuclear tests were carried out by the Soviet Union in the isolated steppes of eastern Kazakhstan from 1949 to 1989. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians pulled out and left the Kazakhs to their own devices – literally. Enough fissile material for a dozen or more nuclear weapons was left behind in mountain tunnels and bore holes, virtually unguarded and vulnerable to rogue states, potential terrorists or the copper-wire scavengers who scoured the site.

In a remarkable, yet closely held, feat of collaboration between the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan, engineers and nuclear scientists from the three countries spent $150 million over more than a decade to secure many of the tunnels and test areas at the sprawling Semipalatinsk Test SiteSiegfried Hecker, a senior fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, launched the project while director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He used his personal ties with Russian scientists to prod them into working with the Americans and Kazakhs after a visit to the test site in 1998 left him stunned by the lack of security and the presence of scavengers.

It was one of the greatest nuclear nonproliferation stories never told, until the White House and the Pentagon revealed some details in 2012, which David Hoffman and Eben Harrell of Harvard’s Belfer Center made public over the weekend in an in-depth report: Plutonium Mountain. In October 2012, officials from Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States dedicated a monument that simply reads: The world has become safer.

In an interview, Hecker – who teaches the popular Stanford class, “Technology and National Security” with former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry – answered questions about the extraordinary Semipalatinsk mission.

Read excerpts from the conversation below. The full interview is available on the website of the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Q: Why were you concerned about plutonium or highly enriched uranium scattered around the former Soviet test site? Did you see it as more than just an environmental and health problem?

Hecker: The atmospheric nuclear explosions resulted in environmental contamination because everything is vaporized in such an explosion. However, I was familiar with additional experiments we Americans performed at our Nevada Test Site and, in fact, some in bore holes at Los Alamos, which left these materials much more intact and easily attainable, thus presenting proliferation or terrorism concerns.

Q: Why did you suspect the Soviets of conducting similar tests?

Hecker: We knew the Soviets had at least as robust a nuclear test and experimentation program as we had. If Nevada became an independent country tomorrow, the way the Soviet site now belongs to Kazakhstan, I would be very concerned. Besides, we had kept a close eye on what was going on at Semipalatinsk during the Cold War. It turned out that we had good reason to be concerned.

Q: How did you get involved with the Russian nuclear complex?

Hecker: On Aug. 17, 1988, 25 years ago, I was sitting in the Nevada Test Site control room for the detonation of one of our nuclear devices. What was remarkable is that across from me was Viktor Mikhailov, leader of a Soviet scientific delegation and later minister of atomic energy. We were conducting an experiment to verify that the other side could adequately monitor the size of nuclear explosions. It was part of the Reagan-Gorbachev set of initiatives to end the Cold War and grew out of technical discussions on the sideline of meetings to negotiate verification measures for the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.

Q: You visited the Russian nuclear weapons labs in early 1992, right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Did they tell you about the problems at Semipalatinsk then?

Hecker: No. They had fond memories of the nuclear testing days at Semipalatinsk. They thought it was tragic that Russia lost such an important asset to the now-independent country of Kazakhstan. They believed the real estate and its problems now belonged to Kazakhstan. The Russian government did not want to be stuck with a bill to clean up the test site and believed the highly publicized environmental issues were greatly overblown.

Q: How did you confirm your suspicions that the problems at Semipalatinsk were more than an environmental problem?

Hecker: We got some discomforting reports from Kazakh scientists that prompted us to investigate this issue further.

Q: How did you get involved with them?

Hecker: The U.S. government began a project in the early 1990s with the Kazakhs to close the testing tunnels and eliminate the nuclear testing infrastructure at Semipalatinsk under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program. That was the first major U.S.-Kazakh effort. We also involved the Kazakhs in an extension of programs we developed with the Russians on nuclear materials security. That brought Los Alamos and other Department of Energy laboratory scientists to the nuclear reactor on the Caspian Sea; to one in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s capital at that time; and to research reactors at the test site.

Q: What did you find during your April 1998 visit to Semipalatinsk?

Hecker: I was alarmed to find unmanned guard posts and virtually no security at the site. My Los Alamos colleagues and I became convinced that Semipalatinsk was not only a serious proliferation problem, but also an urgent one. The copper cable thieves were not nomads on camelback, but instead they employed industrial excavation machinery and left kilometers of deep trenches digging out everything they could sell. We were concerned that some of that copper cabling could lead to plutonium residues. I traveled to Sarov, the Russian Los Alamos, and showed director Rady Ilkaev the photos I had taken at Semipalatinsk. I asked if he was sure that they didn’t leave anything of concern behind. He talked to Ministry of Atomic Energy officials that night and sent the scientists who conducted some of the most important experiments at the site to see me the next morning. The Russian scientists knew this was important and they convinced Moscow that we should work together to mitigate the risks at the test site.

Q: Did the Russian scientists cooperate?

Hecker: The Russian scientists were terrific. Without their cooperation, none of this could have been done. Director Ilkaev cleared the way with Moscow. The two key scientists from Sarov, Dr. Yuri M. Styazhkin and Dr. Viktor S. Stepanyuk, felt it was their moral duty to help solve the problems they left behind. They spent the better part of the next 15 years working on this problem. Unfortunately, Dr. Styazhkin passed away and was not able to celebrate with us when we had a small gathering of scientists at the site last September, just before the official unveiling of the monument in October.

Q. What was physically done to secure the sites?

Hecker: One site required an enormous sarcophagus, at another huge metal vessels were filled with concrete and special materials, and some of the tunnels were filled with concrete. The entire region in question at the test site was equipped with video cameras, seismic sensors and drones feeding information back to a sophisticated control room. 

Q: Who paid for all of this?

Hecker: The Americans paid the entire bill. The Russians were in no position to pay at the beginning of the project, as 1998 was a year of financial meltdown for the Russian economy. If we waited for them to pay, the copper cable thieves may have beat us to the nuclear materials. Likewise, the Kazakhs did not have the financial means and they believed they were not responsible for creating the problem. On the other hand, the U.S. initiated the Nunn-Lugar program to reduce the nuclear risks we face from the proliferation of nuclear weapons or materials resulting from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Washington, spanning three presidential administrations, was prepared and willing to pay. It was money well spent.



Beth Duff-Brown, CiSAC: (650) 725-6488,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,

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