Jeffrey LewisPlutonium Mountain

David Hoffman and Eben Harrell have published an amazing account (“Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing“) of the three operations to secure orphaned plutonium at the Semipalatinsk test site — Operations Groundhog, Matchbox and Nomad. (I had known only of Groundhog.)

Hoffman apparently had a fair amount of the story at the time he wrote the Dead Hand, but held off publishing the story until the operations were completed.  In the process, he got a bit scooped by Ellen Barry in 2011 who learned that scavengers were reopening sealed tunnels.  (Barry has also has a piece on Harrel and Hoffman monograph.)

But if you can’t be first, you can still be best — particularly if you don’t have to labor under the space constraints of a daily newspaper. Hoffman and Harrell’s monograph is a comprehensive history of the effort to secure plutonium at Semipalatinsk.  (Harrell and Hoffman also have a companion piece in the Post.)

For example, footnotes. After I read Barry’s excellent story, I was struck by the fact that the scavengers were able to pop open the tunnels. Some scavengersI wrote.  Some scavengers, indeed.  It turns out the scavengers appear to have been the very same people that sealed the tunnels in the first place:

Ristvet and other U.S. officials interviewed suspect that the scavengers were likely the same construction crews that had worked on constructing the dome the previous year. According to Ristvet, DTRA officials encountered scavengers brazenly using Degelen Mountain Enterprises mining equipment, though Ristvet could never prove that the company’s management was aware of such security breaches.

The monograph is a great read.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    And Golden Eagle! Don’t forget Operation Golden Eagle!

  2. krepon (History)

    Here’s an invitation for the thoughts of hard-core treaty opponents: Would these heroic efforts have been possible in the absence of decades of cooperative arms control and reductions, on which intrusive monitoring and Lab-to-Lab connections were built?

  3. Shawn Hughes (History)

    I think so. Consider: the true driver in the FSR is/was money. They would have had a hard row to hoe with the outright sale of fissile, so why not accept the gracious gift of US welfare, and let the Americans deal with it?
    Certainly, associations sped up the timeline, but I feel ascribing the program solely to them is in error.
    But I also don’t know what I don’t know… 😉

  4. rba (History)

    “1996-2012. The world has become safer.”

    Welp it’s 2013.

  5. Gregory Matteson (History)

    A comment and a question unrelated to the comment. The liberal MSNBC pundit has devoted a number of complete hour long shows in recent years to extolling the activities and successes of the DTRA. The effort to clean up Semipalatinsk did receive some coverage in US magazines.
    My question-comment is that there appears no obvious, sensible relationship between the detritus of hydrodynamic nuclear testing discussed in this article at either Nevada or Semipalatinsk, and the things discussed on this blog or elsewhere regarding allegations and ‘intelligence’ of such testing at the Iranian Parchin site?

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      Er, somehow I left out the name of the MSNBC Pundit, Rachel Maddow.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I am not sure what relationship one might expect.

      The sort of hydrodynamic tests alleged to have been conducted at Parchin were not alleged to have involved fissile material — as a hydronuclear experiment at Semipalatinsk would have.

  6. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I thought the holler about ‘cover-up’ at Parchin is that they’re concealing radiological contamination. That’s all I’ve seen discussed. Other than fissionables, I’ve seen discussions alleging that the hydrodynamic testing at Parchin was of Neutron initiators. Enlighten me: I’m under the impression that such testing by the big boys (Us and the Russians) was conducted in sacrifice areas (i.e. Nevada, and Semipalatinsk), that would be unusable afterwards for the foreseeable future. Since you can’t get the necessary parameters from your handy CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, I presume the North Koreans also conducted such hydrodynamic tests.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I’d have to look again. It’s possible — maybe depleted uranium. But the Iranians don’t have any Pu that I know about (the really nasty stuff) and I doubt there is even HEU. So, I wouldn’t expect anything really nasty. At most I’d exepect suspicious use of uranium metal. Really, really suspicious.

  7. MIIS Alum (History)

    DTRA has still got it!