Jeffrey LewisOperation Groundhog

One of the great things about the Wikileaks cables is that they contain a bunch of stuff that I should have known, but didn’t.  For example, Operation Groundhog.

One of the Wikileaks cables — a February 2010 scene-setter for a visit to Kazakhstan by CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus — notes that “of all of the projects funded by the CTR appropriation, the most critical is a classified project to secure weapons-grade materials at the former Soviet nuclear weapons test site in Semipalatinsk.”

Well, that’s intriguing. As it turns out, the soil in some areas of the former Soviet nuclear test site at  Semipalatisnk is so hot a terrorist could use the soil as a dirty bomb.

The formal name of the program to secure material at Semipalatinsk, as best I can tell from the annual DTRA budget submissions and CTR annual reports, is the Fissile and Radioactive Material Proliferation Prevention. Sometimes you get a (Kazakhstan) or (KZ) to clarify matters.  The DTRA budget submission describes the project tersely: “This project secures radiological materials.”

Well, that clears it up.

Actually, the cable doesn’t say much more, explaining that “The project is tri-lateral, between Russia, Kazakhstan, and the United States, with the Russians providing the necessary data regarding material location and the United States providing funding to repatriate the material to Russia or secure it in situ.”  The cable also notes that DOD has pressed Kazakhstan to increase security at the site, and provided assistance in the form of ground sensors and UAVs.

The bland, bureaucratic name obscures a fascinating program.  For the details, one one must turn to a 2003 article by Richard Stone in Science magazine. The entire article, “Plutonium Fields Forever,” (Science, 23 May 2003: 1220-1224), is fascinating and well worth your time.  Here is a sample:

At an undisclosed location in northeastern Kazakhstan, workers clad in white suits and respiratory masks are paving an area the size of a football field with a 2-meter-thick slab of steel reinforced concrete. This covert operation, in the middle of desolate, shrubby steppe that once formed part of the Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk Test Site, might never have been contemplated before the 11 September terror attacks. But it has taken on a new sense of urgency. The reason: The soil is laced with plutonium.

If inhaled, the plutonium dust, a Cold War leftover, would pose a cancer risk. But that’s not the concern that is driving “Operation Groundhog,” which Kazakh officials described to Science. The nightmare is that terrorists could cart away the fissile material and fashion it into a “dirty bomb,” a device to disperse the plutonium using conventional explosives. Sophisticated atom thieves could even extract enough plutonium to construct “a small nuclear device,” asserts Timur Zhantikin, chair of the Atomic Energy Committee, Kazakhstan’s nuclear regulatory body. Adding to the fears, says Kairat Kadyrzhanov, director of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Almaty, is that “today you have essentially uncontrolled and unrestricted access to the test site.”

It is no surprise that parts of the site—a territory nearly as big as Israel that once served as the Soviet Union’s main testing grounds for atomic weapons—are badly contaminated. Over 4 decades, 456 nuclear detonations and dozens more “model experiments” were carried out here. What’s disturbing is that until a few months ago, officials at Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center (NNC), which manages the test site, knew nothing of the plutonium patch that they are now putting beyond use. Russian specialists divulged the information about the hot spot—located outside the four main testing areas—during recent trilateral talks between Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States aimed at identifying proliferation threats at the site.


Authorities are taking no chances. The plutonium is “a serious proliferation concern,” says an official at the U.S. Department of Defense, which is footing the bill for Operation Groundhog. “Our most pressing problem is preventing terrorist access to fissile materials,” adds NNC Director-General Shamil Tukhvatulin.

The disturbing picture of plutonium contamination that’s emerging is a setback for Kazakh officials, who had hoped to transfer major tracts of the test site to local municipalities for farming, grazing, and mining during the site’s decommissioning after the Soviet breakup. “That’s what we thought 10 years ago, anyway,” says Tukhvatulin. Now he has a new mandate: keeping out interlopers while his teams root out hidden hot spots. “It’s not like the material is lying there on the ground for us to find,” says Zhenis Zhotabaev, NNC’s deputy director-general. A comprehensive survey of the territory is necessary, experts concur, but this could take years: Although contamination in the main testing areas is well documented, overall less than a third of the site has been scoured for radionuclides.

Apparently, here we are — seven years later — still looking for Soviet plutonium scattered in the Kazakh soil.

What really interested me was that we seem to keep finding it. A perusal of CTR budget submissions and annual reports reveals an interesting budgetary patterns.  Through the mid-2000s, the program chugged along at a few million dollars a year and looked set to close out with a final FY2005 expenditure of $4.5 million.  But instead of ending, the expenditures suddenly started rise — Congress appropriated more than $50 million last year.  (In case you want to recreate the budget numbers, you can go through the DOD Budget submissions here; The Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Partnership for Global Security have the Annual Reports to Congress.)

The Kazakhs obviously found something unpleasant between 2005 and 2009. As the budget spiked, the annual report became very, very vague. Like “A summary of this project is provided in a supplemental letter” vague.

What happened?  I don’t know. One possibility is that the ongoing site surveys found a much worse mess than anyone anticipated.  NATO funded surveys of the south-western portion of the test site near Sarzhal (SEMIRAD, 2000-2002) and, after 2004, in the north-eastern area of the test site toward Maisk (SEMIRAD II).  The north-eastern area of the test site is the location of the so-called “experimental field” where the Soviet Union conducted most of its atmospheric nuclear tests. I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be really nasty.

So the United States is now spending tens of millions of dollars a year to help Kazakhstan secure Soviet plutonium scattered at the test site in Semipalatinsk.  The scale of effort, as well as the recent post about the progam to secure the spent fuel from the BN-350 reactor, leaves me wondering about what it must be like as an American working at Semi.

I’d be interested in hearing stories, seeing photos, etc.  It has to be the sort of gig that you recall with a certain nostalgia, even if it actually sucked.  No?


  1. FSB (History)

    Pls proofread “you you” “gig that recall”…that said:

    A dirty bomb is a hysteria-dependent device. No need for Pu-soil from K. — just some hot medical/research junk in there will suffice. You don’t need fire — you just need to should “Fire!”

    While we look for Soviet Pu in K. soil, we are also going build new and better radiological material factories at ORNL.

    • Anonymous (History)

      What to make of people who complain about typos, but then have typos themselves? Smug self-satisfaction?

    • FSB (History)

      It was test, bovuiskly.


  2. shaheen (History)

    For once I agree with FSB (though he should himself proofread what he writes: should/shout).
    There is a reason why most if not all of the RED scenarios involve non-fissile material.
    It would be interesting to modelize the use of Pu-contaminated soil in former testing sites for a dirty bomb.

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    Are former U.S. test sites like that?

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    There is much uncertainty here, but the only way to get a significant but comparatively small area (like one hectare, it appears) seriously contaminated with plutonium that I can see is the explosion of a nuclear bomb with little to no nuclear yield. I.e., a fail-safe accident or an almost complete fizzle.

    Just why they chose to pave it over rather than scraping the soil up and burying it would be interesting to know. Are we talking about something like the Cactus Dome?

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > Cactus Dome

      11.5526 N, 162.3473 E , for GoogleEarthophiles

      Speaking of which, is the Kazakh slab viewable in GE? If so, where?

  5. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    I don’t see anything obvious on GE, but a lot of the site is still low-res. But it is interesting to note that sometime between April 2008 and July 2009, the large walled compound holding hundreds of (irradiated?) tanks at 50°23’00.00″ N, 80°09’22.22″ E was emptied. I wonder where they went.