In the 1990s, the United States and other countries helped the newly independent states that had been part of the Soviet Union to deal with their nuclear weapons and materials. It’s a story that has been almost completely forgotten, but it contains a number of lessons that might be helpful today.
David Frum reminds us of that effort. I was involved in it. A few additional thoughts.
It wasn’t just the United States that helped. Although Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) started the funding, the International Science and Technology Committee, funded by the European Union, Japan, and Norway, in addition to the United States, also helped to support nuclear weapons scientists suddenly without jobs.
And it wasn’t just Kazakhstan. Most of the former Soviet republics had leftovers from the Soviet nuclear weapons programs – from mining through production plants to the weapons stationed in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Help was needed in materials accountability and in moving the weapons back to Russia, which inherited the USSR’s status as a nuclear weapons power.
I am pretty sure that I have seen the site pictured in Frum’s article. The caption is “The destruction of a Soviet-era nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan in 2000.” It looks like the sealing of one of the tunnels in the Degelen Mountain testing area. Nuclear tests were carried out in the tunnels. Some of them left metallic plutonium behind.
When I saw in 2001 that the tunnels had been sealed, I realized that they would have to be opened up again. They were, in the recovery of plutonium during 2005-2007. It probably was a good idea to seal them early, though, because scavengers were at the test site, removing copper wire that had been used for the tests.
The Soviet Union formally ended December 25, 1991. In early February, the three directors of the American weapons laboratories – Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia – were on their way to Sarov, Russia’s equivalent of Los Alamos. Scientists and engineers from those laboratories and others followed. As Frum notes, Vladimir Putin ended the cooperation in 2012. Kazakhstan now has removed its weapons-related nuclear material. The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and other nuclear operations left a great many things to clean up.
President George H. W. Bush eliminated a large number American nuclear weapons in a unilateral gesture intended to show Mikhail Gorbachev that the US would not take advantage of Russia in its disarray. Frum emphasizes that Soviet weapons were eliminated, but weapons were eliminated on both sides.
Those of us who were part of it made new friends and spent time in countries we never imagined would be open to us. It felt like making the world a better place. It was the best thing I did in my career.
Cross-posted to Balloon Juice