Nuclear cleanup project could be model for other sites

Nuclear cleanup 2
Copyright: Paul Lowe / Panos

Speed read

  • The test site in Kazakhstan was abandoned when the Soviet Union collapsed
  • US, Kazakh and Russian scientists removed plutonium and sealed test tunnels
  • Other nuclear sites, such as one in Algeria, could benefit from similar treatment

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A Soviet-era nuclear test site in Kazakhstan was cleaned up through a collaborative international project that could provide lessons for tackling other dangerous nuclear sites across the globe, a report reveals.

The report, entitled ‘Plutonium Mountain’, documents how international scientific cooperation was important for securing nuclear waste from the site. It was released in August by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, United States.

The Semipalatinsk test site, which spans an area about the size of Belgium, lies in a remote part of eastern Kazakhstan. It embodied the post-Cold War risk of ‘loose nukes’ — the threat that terrorists or rogue states could obtain nuclear fissile materials — according to the report.

“I think that trust-building and transparency between the scientific communities of adversarial states are important — but not sufficient — for breakthroughs and cooperation.”

Eben Harrell, Belfer Center

Degelen Mountain, located within the site, contained the Soviet Union’s largest underground nuclear testing area. It was here that 340 of the site’s 456 nuclear explosions took place between 1949 and 1991. Some of these tests left plutonium in tunnels that thieves could potentially extract.

Radioactive contamination of the ground at the former test site was also a serious threat to human health and the environment at the time of the cleanup, according to the report.

For these reasons, the United States saw the site as a particular threat and made it the focus of a 17-year, US$150 million cooperative project with Kazakhstan and Russia.

Nuclear scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, a US nuclear research institution, first met their Kazakh and Russian counterparts in 1992 following the Soviet Union’s collapse. The bonds formed between the scientists then helped establish a programme that, in 2012, finally completed the process of locating and extracting thousands of pounds of nuclear material and sealing off the tunnels inside the mountain test site.

A role for scientists

It was scientists who first identified the materials at the site, recognised the threat they posed and proposed the cleanup. The report says that international scientific collaboration can play a vital role in driving the cleanup of hazardous sites.

But such collaboration would be ineffective without official backing, says Eben Harrell of the Belfer Center and one of the report’s co-authors.

“I think that trust-building and transparency between the scientific communities of adversarial states are important — but not sufficient — for breakthroughs and cooperation,” he says.

The relationships among the scientists involved “would have been meaningless if there wasn’t a funding mechanism put in place at a high level between the US and former Soviet Union,” Harrell says.

In addition, the efforts to secure the Kazakhstan nuclear test site have not completely eliminated the threat. Although the tunnels have been sealed, some dangerous materials still lurk inside them.

“The plutonium at Degelen Mountain will potentially pose a danger for a time frame beyond human understanding,” the report says.

More cleanups required

Former nuclear test sites in Russia and other countries also need to be assessed for safety, according to the report. It cites a former nuclear test site in Algeria as being of particular concern. According to Harrell, French officials have not been open with the United States regarding the site, so questions remain as to whether plutonium is still present there.

In addition, many more sites containing dangerous, unsecured nuclear materials are likely to become international concerns, potentially requiring similar collaborative projects. The need to clean up and secure nuclear materials could become an issue in any state with a nuclear programme, says Harrell.

“I think that fostering cooperation between scientific communities in countries will be essential when — and it is ‘when’ and not ‘if’ — other nuclear states collapse. We tend to think of states as durable institutions but they are not, at least not for any length of time required when it comes to fissile material,” Harrell says. “Having relationships between nuclear scientists in place can help reduce the risk when this eventually occurs.”
Link to the full report