Half a Ton of Uranium -- and a Long Flight

uranOn a snowy day in December 1993, just months after Andy Weber began his diplomatic job at the U.S. Embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan, he met with a tall, bullet-headed man he knew only as Col. Korbator. (photo: Andy Weber is shown at the metal plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, in 1994 during Project Sapphire.)



"Andy, let's take a walk," the colonel said. As they strolled through a dim apartment courtyard, Korbator handed Weber a piece of paper. Weber unfolded it. On the paper was written: U235; 90 percent; 600 kilos


Weber did the calculation: 1,322 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to make about 24 nuclear bombs. He closed the note, put it in his pocket and thanked the colonel. After several months of patient cultivation of his contacts, Weber finally had the answer he had been seeking.


The piece of paper was a glimpse into what had become the most urgent proliferation crisis to follow the collapse of the Soviet Union: the discovery of tons of nuclear materials left behind by the Cold War arms race, much of it unguarded and unaccounted for.


This is the story of Project Sapphire, the code name for an early pioneering mission to secure a portion of those nuclear materials before they could fall into the wrong hands. New documents and interviews provide the fullest account yet of this covert operation to remove the dangerous uranium from Kazakhstan and fly it to the United States. When it was over, the U.S. government paid Kazakhstan about $27 million for the cache.


Efforts to lock up nuclear materials scattered around the globe are still underway. This week, at the U.N. Security Council, President Obama will chair a high-level meeting on the continuing dangers of proliferation.


Weber first learned of the uranium in Kazakhstan during the summer of 1993, when Vitaly Mette, a former Soviet navy submarine commander, discreetly set up a meeting by leaving a message for Weber with his handyman and car mechanic. Mette, who wore a leather jacket and kept his thick hair combed back from his angular face, told Weber that he wanted to sell uranium to the United States. But he was vague about the uranium's enrichment level. The uranium was stored at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, an enormous industrial complex that fabricated reactor fuel in the grimy city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, in Kazakhstan's northeast. Mette was the director.


To build trust with Mette, Weber went hunting with him in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near the borders of Russia and China. Weber enjoyed the banya steam baths, chewed on smoked pork fat and shivered in the early-morning cold with Mette and other Russians.


At the end of the trip, Mette volunteered to show Weber the plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk. "If it is not a secret," Weber asked Mette gently as they drove around the gargantuan fenced-off factory, "do you have any highly enriched uranium?"


Mette remained evasive. Weber needed proof to satisfy skeptics in Washington.


In 1993, two years after the Soviet Union's collapse, its former republics were brimming with highly enriched uranium and plutonium. That summer, Viktor Mikhailov, the Russian atomic energy minister, revealed that Russia had accumulated up to 1,200 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, more than was previously thought. The Iranians and the Iraqis were casting about for material to build nuclear bombs. "We knew that Iran was all over Central Asia and the Caucasus with their purchasing agents," recalled Jeff Starr, who was then director for threat reduction policy at the Pentagon.


But the former Soviet lands were also awash in scams and deception -- people offering to sell MiGs, missile guidance systems or fissile material, real and imagined. When Weber filed his initial reports on his meetings with Mette, he recalled, "A lot of people thought it was a scam."


Weber went back to Mette. "Look," he remembered saying, "for us to take this seriously, you have to tell me what the enrichment level is, and how much of it there is."


Not long after that conversation came the note delivered by Col. Korbator.


* * *


Weber sent a cable to Washington, with limited distribution. Nothing happened for about a month. Then in January 1994, his cable came up as an afterthought at a White House meeting. Ashton B. Carter, an assistant secretary of defense, volunteered to take over the issue. Carter called Starr into his office. "Your job is to put together a team and go get this stuff out of Kazakhstan," Carter said. "Whatever you need -- do it." Carter wanted the uranium out within a month.


Starr put together a top-secret "tiger team," an ad hoc group of officials from different agencies. On Feb. 14, 1994, the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, made his first trip to Washington, where he met with President Bill Clinton. Weber and William Courtney, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, were in Washington at the time of the visit.


In a White House ceremony, Clinton praised Nazarbayev's "great courage, vision and leadership" and announced that U.S. aid to Kazakhstan would triple, to $311 million. No mention was made of uranium.


Meanwhile, Weber and Courtney quietly went to see Nazarbayev at Blair House, where he was staying. They asked him if the United States could send an expert to verify the composition of the uranium at Ust-Kamenogorsk. Nazarbayev agreed, but he insisted it be done with the utmost secrecy.


The job went to Elwood Gift, a chemical-nuclear engineer with the National Security Programs Office at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Gift had experience in most of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment. He arrived in Kazakhstan on March 1 amid swirling snowstorms and holed up at Weber's house until the weather cleared. Several days later, using tickets in false names given to them by the Kazakh government, Gift and Weber boarded a plane for the 535-mile flight.


By this time, Weber had come to know Mette better. Weber found him charismatic, gutsy and intelligent, the opposite of an old Soviet bureaucrat. When Weber and Gift showed up the first morning to take samples of the uranium, Mette told them the story of how it ended up there. The uranium had been prepared for a secret submarine fuel project, but the project had been canceled in the 1980s. The highly enriched uranium was left behind.


As they approached the building, Weber saw that the security system consisted of what he later described as a "Civil War padlock." The doors swung open into a large room with concrete walls and a dirt floor. Knee-high brick platforms stretched from one end to the other, covered by sheets of plywood with steel buckets and canisters holding the uranium, spaced about 10 feet apart to avoid a chain reaction.


Working with plant technicians, Weber and Gift randomly selected a few containers and took them to a small laboratory area. In one canister, they found uranium rods wrapped in foil, as if they were items in a picnic cooler. Weber hefted one of the rods, and was surprised by how heavy it was.


Gift wanted to break off a piece and bring it back to verify the enrichment level. He asked a technician to take a hammer and a chisel to it, but the ingot would not break.


Weber went off with another worker to watch him file off some shavings for samples. At first, the technicians handled the uranium in a glove box, but one of them took it out and placed it on a table. The technician slid a piece of paper under it and began to file the ingot. Sparks flew, as if it were a child's holiday sparkler.


"My eyes are lighting up, because I've had this chunk of metal in my hand," Weber recalled. "I know it is bomb material. . . . This uranium metal would require nothing -- just being banged into the right shape and more of it to make a bomb. It didn't need any processing. This is 90 or 91 percent enriched uranium 235, in pure metal form. And I remember thinking that dozens of nuclear weapons could be fabricated from this, easily fabricated from this material, and how mundane it is. It was just a piece of metal. And just looking at these buckets, how could something this mundane have such awesome power and potential for destruction? So, as he started filing, and sparks are coming off, you can imagine what's going through my head."


Seeing the sparks, he called out, "Elwood! It's sparking!" Gift was on the other side of the room, dealing with another sample. He didn't realize they had taken the uranium out of the glove box, but he didn't look up. "Don't worry," Gift said, "that's just normal oxidation."


Gift collected eight samples of highly enriched uranium. Portions of four samples were dissolved in acid and analyzed by mass spectrograph while Gift and Weber were still there, and they confirmed it was 90 percent enriched uranium. They left with three of the dissolved samples and the eight original samples to do further analysis.


* * *


Back in Almaty, Weber and Gift told Courtney, the ambassador, they had verified that the uranium was highly enriched. Courtney immediately cabled Washington, noting the ancient padlock on the door. The cable, Weber said, "hit Washington like a ton of bricks."


Weber thought there was only one thing to do. "In my mind, it was a no-brainer," he said. "Let's buy this stuff as quickly as we can and move it to the United States."


In October 1994, after months of preparation, a covert mission to remove the uranium was almost ready to begin. "I kept pressing and pressing to get this thing going, knowing full well that winter comes early in this part of the world," Weber said. "It would get messy if we didn't get it finished before the first snowfall."


In Tennessee, the Oak Ridge Y-12 laboratory had built a mobile processing facility. A team of 29 men and two women had been recruited for the mission. On Oct. 7, Clinton signed a classified presidential directive approving the airlift, and a final briefing was held at Oak Ridge. The next day, three C-5 aircraft, among the largest planes in the world, lifted off from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, carrying the team and the mobile processing facility. They flew to Turkey, and then, after some delays, to Ust-Kamenogorsk.


Weber was waiting for them in the control tower of the small airport. "This was one of those bizarre post-Cold War experiences you have to live through to believe, but I'm in the control tower, nobody in the control tower speaks English," Weber recalled. "So they said, 'Andy, can you talk to the planes and guide them in?' "


The planes left, planning to return only when the uranium was packed up. On the ground, at the Ulba factory, the team members began their arduous work. Each day, they left their hotel before dawn and returned after dark, spending 12 hours packing the uranium into special containers suitable for flying. There were seven types of uranium-bearing materials in the warehouse, much of it laced with toxic beryllium.


This was an extraordinary mission, one country secretly swooping in to another to remove the danger of nuclear materials that had been all but abandoned. Altogether, the team discovered 1,032 containers in the warehouse, and each had to be methodically unpacked, examined and repacked into quart-size cans that were then inserted into 448 shipping containers -- 55-gallon drums with foam inserts -- for the flight. The process required precision, endurance and secrecy. If word leaked, the whole effort might have to be aborted.


By Nov. 11, the packing was finished and the 448 barrels were loaded onto trucks. The team was determined to get home for Thanksgiving, but bad weather set in. A week went by before one C-5 could leave Turkey for Kazakhstan.


At 3 a.m., with the plane on its way, the uranium was driven from the Ulba plant to the airport, with Weber in the lead security car, a Soviet-era Volga. "It was black-ice conditions," he recalled. "And these trucks were sliding all over the place, and I'm thinking, 'I don't want to make the call to Washington saying one of the trucks with highly enriched uranium went off the bridge into the river, and we're trying to locate it.' But somehow, miraculously, we made it all safely to the airport."


It took three hours to load the plane. But before it could take off, the runway had to be cleared of snow. Sleet, ice and rain blanketed the airfield, a pilot later recalled. There were no plows to be seen. Finally, airport workers brought out a truck with a jet engine mounted on the back. They fired up the engine and blasted the runway free of snow.


The C-5 heaved itself into the sky. The next day, two more C-5s flew in and back out with the remaining uranium, the gear and the team. The enormous transports, operating in total secrecy, flew 20 hours straight through to Dover with several aerial refuelings, the longest C-5 flights in U.S. history. Once on the ground in Delaware, the uranium was loaded into large, unmarked trucks specially outfitted to protect nuclear materials during the drive to Oak Ridge.


On Nov. 23, the Clinton administration announced at a Washington news conference that it had removed the uranium. Defense Secretary William J. Perry called it "defense by other means, in a big way" and added: "We have put this bomb-grade nuclear material forever out of the reach of potential black marketers, terrorists or a new nuclear regime."


With imagination and daring, Project Sapphire underscored what could be done with the cooperation of another government. But the methods used in that mission could not be replicated in Russia, where there was far more uranium and plutonium, and much more suspicion.


In late 1994, the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee prepared a report about the extent of the Russian nuclear materials crisis. The top-secret document concluded that not a single facility storing highly enriched uranium or plutonium in the former Soviet Union had safeguards up to Western standards.


Not one.


* * *


Epilogue: Since that 1994 report, many of the facilities with unguarded nuclear material in the former Soviet Union have undergone security upgrades. By 2008, more than 70 percent of the buildings with weapons-usable nuclear materials had been fortified, although the uranium and plutonium were still spread across more than 200 locations. At the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Russian city of Ozersk, a massive fortified vault was built by the United States at a cost of $309 million to store excess Russian fissile materials, although it is still partly empty.


Since Project Sapphire, highly enriched uranium has been removed from about 20 research reactors and sensitive installations around the former Soviet bloc.



The Washington Post

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