U.S. team assesses unsafe fuel from ex-Soviet country

The Department of Defense’s Jeffrey Starr was heading up a classified operation. He established his “tiger team” by the end of January 1994 — two members each from the Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, departments of state, energy and defense and the now-defunct Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Their initial goal was to assess the threat and collect all the information various agencies had gathered. All the information was classified and the team would be the first to put together a complete assessment of the situation at the Ulba uranium plant in Kazakhstan.

Starr’s team ruled out the “cheap option” of beefing up security at the Ulba vault because of the country’s politically uncertain future.

“The tiger team’s role was to figure out what our policy would be,” said Starr, “but it went far beyond policy. We had to set objectives, run negotiations, oversee an operational plan and fuse all the intelligence.”

The team subcontracted out some work to experts in government agencies, but never told them what the mission was. Starr described it as having people solve fragments of a puzzle.

Elwood Gift worked on the piece involving the Sapphire material. The nuclear physicist from Oak Ridge, Tenn., traveled to Kazakhstan in a “very unobtrusive way” in February 1994. He returned to Oak Ridge in April with 11 samples of the Ulba uranium in small glass vials.

While Gift and Andy Webber, who was based in Almaty at the U.S. Embassy, were in Ulba, they found more crates labeled for shipment to Iran. U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan William Courtney said Ulba workers claimed the crates did not contain weapons-grade uranium, but the contents were never confirmed.

When questions about the paperwork arose, the shipper — it is unclear if it was a Kazakhstani or Iranian — disappeared, said Starr.

The uranium samples were analyzed by DOE contractor Martin Marietta to determine if the material could be stored at Oak Ridge. The company’s report in July listed high levels of beryllium as a “significant health hazard” and plutonium as a lesser risk.

Six months after the tiger team was formed, it had confirmation the Sapphire material amounted to 2,000 kilograms of heavy uranium, about 600 kilograms of which was weapons-grade uranium.

“About 200 kilograms was almost pure (weapons-grade uranium metal),” said Starr, “which was particularly dangerous from our perspective, because with almost no processing it could have been made into a nuclear weapon.”

The report prompted a brisk message from the Starr team through the U.S. embassy to the Kazakhstani government — we will move on this, but you need to wait.

While Courtney quietly negotiated the details in Almaty, Starr’s team spent March and April getting money and final approval from the Clinton administration for the mission to remove the uranium from Ulba.

Alex Riedy was brought in to figure out how to repackage the Sapphire material to meet U.S. and international shipping safety standards.

Riedy was director of the National Security Program office at Oak Ridge’s Y-12 plant. He had also worked on UN weapons inspection teams that investigated Iraq’s nuclear program just after the Gulf War.

Riedy’s working group estimated the removal would take six weeks and require a 31-member team of specialists. Twenty-five of them were from Riedy’s Oak Ridge team.

Each member had a different specialty, including processing and analyzing nuclear materials, health physics, safety, hygiene and maintenance. A medical doctor, a communications specialist and three interpreters and an embassy liaison from the Pentagon’s On-Site Inspection Agency joined the Oak Ridge members.

All went to Kazakhstan knowing that packing the uranium would be a major problem. Riedy’s work at Oak Ridge had revealed that the beryllium in the Sapphire material could set off a nuclear chain reaction if the packaged uranium contained too much of it.

Extensive calculations were done to determine the exact amount of beryllium that could be included safely, but there was a wild card — the beryllium content in the Sapphire material wasn’t uniform.

Riedy’s team created a mockup of the Ulba warehouse, a portable lab and a packaging, staging area, at Oak Ridge. The lab, which would be replicated in Ulba, allowed the team to sample and package the material, weigh it, and analyze its radioactivity.

Most crucial was the “glovebox.”

It was a transparent, sealed desk- sized box with gloves attached to the interior wall so workers could put their hands in from the outside, allowing them to handle the material without exposure to radioactivity. Meanwhile, Starr’s team was trying to outmaneuver National Environmental Policy Act guidelines because of worries about secrecy.

Bringing a large amount of nuclear material to an American facility required an environmental assessment, which outlines the proposed action and potential effects on the public.

Worried about putting too much information in the document, Starr’s group withheld the amount and chemistry of the material to maintain the project’s secrecy.

“It wasn’t like this was the tightest secret in the U.S. government,” said nonproliferation expert Jon Wolfsthal, “but still, it was very closely held.”

But not closely enough for Starr.

“The [environmental assessment] by law would be made public, and we didn’t want to short-circuit that process,” said Starr. His team feared bureaucrats preparing the environmental documents would increase the risk that information could be leaked.

The fears were two-fold — that terrorists and rogue nations might try to make a move on the Ulba materials, or that a worker in Ulba might steal it and look for a buyer on the growing nuclear black market.

“If the bad guys knew we were going to try to get it, they might try to get there first,” said Starr. “The circle of people who knew about the project grew uncomfortably large by the end of the summer.”

In August 1994, an advance Pentagon team went to Kazakhstan to figure out the logistics of the operation, including transportation routes to the Ulba plant and most importantly, where a C-5 Galaxy transporter plane could land.

It’s hard to hide the largest airplane in the U.S. Air Force fleet.

While it was clear the Sapphire material wasn’t moving, neither were the wheels of government bureaucracy.

U.S. agencies argued over how to pay for the operation. Diplomats argued about seeking Russian approval of the transfer. Kazakhstan argued about getting just compensation.

“The bureaucracy on the U. S. side was appalling,” said former Defense Department employee Laura Holgate. “The Nunn-Lugar program was not set up to do this.”

Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had helped convince Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar to create the legislation that bore their names. Authorized by Congress in 1991, it sought to help Russia and the former Soviet republics pay for protecting and destroying nuclear and chemical weapons.

But the law didn’t specifically authorize paying for nuclear material and bringing it back to the United States. If the Pentagon needed money for the Sapphire program, it required long consultations with lawyers in the Department of Defense.

Carter, who left Harvard in 1993 to take the Assistant Secretary of Defense post, saw Sapphire as the most urgent project Nunn-Lugar had ever faced. He was frustrated it couldn’t move faster.

“At every stage, you ran into the stodginess of government bureaucracy, which is understandable,” said Carter. “You’re talking about the public’s money and the public’s trust.”

Nunn-Lugar allowed the United States to pay Kazakhstan for the market value of the uranium, said Starr. At the request of Kazakhstan, that amount has never been disclosed.

What was eventually disclosed was that Kazakhstan wanted more than market value for the material.

“I remember one of the Kazakhstani officials telling me, ‘You’re giving me what I already have,’ ” said Starr.

So the U.S. created a $20 million aid package.

“There was a handful of other program activities under way with Kazakhstan that were essentially beefed up,” said Holgate.

Among them were nuclear material protection, export control assistance, boats to patrol the Caspian Sea coast and aid for a program to find jobs for Kazakhstani nuclear workers. Also included was a $2 million shipment of supplies from pharmaceutical companies and hospitals.

The negotiations that resulted in the aid package didn’t really start in earnest until after the uranium was back in the United States, said Starr.

He called that “a clear statement of [Kazakhstan’s] trust.”

The team was divided on the Russia question. Bringing Russia into the negotiations would add a third country that had to be satisfied. Russia was also expected to be very sensitive about the United States getting a chance to analyze the material and discover any of Russia’s nuclear secrets.

Adding Russia could also insult Kazakhstan, now a sovereign nation, by implying that it couldn’t make a decision without conferring with Moscow.

“Kazakhstan came to us and wanted it to be a bilateral deal between them and us,” said Starr.

State Department officials saw Sapphire as tied to the United States’ efforts to build a closer relationship with Russia, but it wouldn’t even acknowledge at first that the Sapphire material was at Ulba.

The diplomatic solution, which Starr said involved Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, was to “notify” Russia in June.

Down home politics in Tennessee nearly got in the way in July.

Tennessee was going through political upheaval in 1994, with the governor’s seat, both Senate seats and nine congressional seats up for grabs in November. Nuclear material is a sensitive Tennessee political issue.

The Department of Energy was worried how Tennessee politicians, the public and environmentalists would react to bringing a shipment of weapons-grade uranium to Oak Ridge from another country without being notified or asked if they agreed with the plan.

The DOE and Starr’s team debated about what to tell to whom.

There was rising fear that someone in a tight political race would raise the issue publicly in a campaign.

In August, Department of Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary briefed political candidates and state and local Tennessee officials. No one leaked the information.

About a year had passed since Andy Webber’s mechanic told him about Ulba.

“I was anxiety-ridden in August and September because we had hundreds of things we had to pull together,” said Starr. The mission to retrieve the uranium was originally supposed to be launched by the end of the summer.

Tempers were beginning to flare.

“At least once a week, my boss would blow up at somebody for dragging their feet,” said Holgate, referring to Ashton Carter’s frustration over the delays.

Ambassador Courtney said the slow response wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular.

“The whole process should have been faster,” said Courtney, “but it was the first time the U.S. had done anything like this.”

Holgate was less diplomatic.

“The U.S. government ought to be ashamed of itself,” she said.

The National Security Council is supposed to coordinate agencies and do what the president asks, and it was not aggressive enough, said Holgate.

“The president’s guidance in this context was crystal clear,” said Holgate. “Get that stuff the heck out of there.”

President Clinton authorized the mission on Oct. 7, 1994.

Three hours later Riedy’s team, along with 130 tons of equipment, took off from Knoxville, Tenn. on three Air Force C-5 transport planes.

They touched down in Ust Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan the next day.

WHAT’S NEXT: The 31-member Sapphire team working 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, repackages the highly enriched uranium in 25 days. By Nov. 19, the equipment was taken down, inspected and sealed for transport to the airport in Ust- Kamenogorsk. Over the final 48 hours, two things now worried the team — terrorists and winter.

Chris Flores is a writer for The News & Advance in Lynchburg.

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