An Alleged “Nuclear Device” in Western Kazakhstan Is a Non-Nuclear Installation

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Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova
February 23, 2007

On February 14, 2007, Kazakh parliamentarian Tokhtar Aubakirov announced Kazakhstan still possessed a nuclear explosive device. However, the device is actually a research installation for high-pressure physics experiments.

Mazhilis (lower chamber of Kazakhstan’s parliament) member Tokhtar Aubakirov shocked his colleagues and the press by announcing that Kazakhstan still possessed a nuclear explosive device. According to Aubakirov’s statement, a “nuclear device” that could still be detonated had been abandoned at Azgyr, a former nuclear test site in Western Kazakhstan, and was too large to be transported to Russia.[1] The announcement came during parliamentary hearings on Kazakhstan’s ratification of an agreement to facilitate the implementation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and provoked a discussion of whether the country could still be considered a non-nuclear-weapon state. The speculation, however, quickly dissipated, and was largely unnoted in Western media.

Five days later, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources both issued statements denying the presence of any nuclear warheads or nuclear devices on the territory of Kazakhstan. The Ministry of Energy statement further clarified that the device in question was Yava, a research installation for experiments in high-pressure physics. The Ministry of Energy has stated that due to its technical characteristics, the installation was not suitable for conducting nuclear explosions and did not contain any radioactive materials. During the Soviet era, the installation was used for research on deep submergence effects and the production of artificial diamonds.[2]

In April 2003, the ownership of the Yava installation was transferred from Kazakhstan to the Joint Nuclear Research Institute (JINR), an international scientific center in Russia, as part of Kazakhstan’s payment for membership in the center.[2] The JINR and Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center (NNC) are discussing possible applications of the installation.[3]

Zhenis Zhotabayev, deputy director general of the NNC, also denied that the installation had been abandoned or was unguarded. According to an interview he gave to the Megapolis newspaper, the Azgyr Scientific Radio-Ecological Dispatch, formed in 1996 and currently staffed with 16 people, is guarding the installation. Judging from Zhotabayev’s comments, the staff of the dispatch is armed with firearms.

Yava, or Yava-1M, is a spherical installation, 12 meters in diameter, made of high-strength materials with a 10-centimeter thick surface, and placed in a 24-meter deep concrete-laden pit.[2,3] It is designed to resist static pressure of up to 180 atmospheres. The installation’s presence on the former test site has been known to experts for over a decade and did not seem to provoke any concern or suspicion prior to the latest announcement.[4]

Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Legacy

Before the collapse of the USSR, Kazakhstan played an important part in the Soviet nuclear weapons program and hosted the world’s largest nuclear weapons testing ground near Semipalatinsk, in northeast of the country. Several smaller sites in Western Kazakhstan, including Azgyr, were also used for peaceful nuclear explosions and testing the aircraft and missile delivery of nuclear weapons.[5] The last peaceful nuclear explosion at the Azgyr site was conducted in December 1978.[6] In August 1991, the president of Kazakhstan officially closed the Semipalatinsk test site, and in 1992, Kazakhstan declared ownership over former Soviet military facilities on its territory. Kazakhstan also prohibited nuclear testing on its territory and subsequently joined the CTBT.

In addition to test sites, Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet legacy included over 1,000 nuclear warheads, 104 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 40 nuclear-capable bombers. Kazakhstan decided to voluntarily give up this nuclear arsenal and acceded to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state in February 1994. By April 1995, Kazakhstan had transferred all nuclear warheads from its territory to Russia.

The infrastructure of the Semipalatinsk test site was destroyed by July 2000. However, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, concerns were raised in relation to plutonium remaining in the soil of one of the sections of the former test site (the exact location has not been disclosed).[7] According to a May 2003 article in Science magazine, Kazakh officials believed that plutonium contamination of a patch of land outside the main testing areas resulted from an experiment that involved the detonation of a nuclear device with a small release of nuclear energy — a hydronuclear test.[7]

While the main threat posed by such “plutonium fields” is the cancer risk from the inhalation of plutonium dust, officials in the United States and Kazakhstan were also worried that terrorists might be able to remove the fissile material and create a “dirty bomb.” According to the Science article, there could even have remained enough fissile material for a small nuclear explosive device, but extracting a sufficient amount of plutonium from the soil and casting it into a nuclear charge would require a much higher level of sophistication.[10]. In order to address the threat, Kazakhstan and the United States jointly conducted “Operation Groundhog,” covering the contaminated area with steel-reinforced concrete. However, it remains unclear if there are more such contaminated spots on the former test sites around the country, representing both a health hazard and a proliferation concern. Available information indicates that 38 hydronuclear tests were conducted at the Semipalatinsk site, but the Russian government has not released enough of the information related to these experiments to ensure that all contaminated territory has been identified.[7]

Furthermore, an undetonated nuclear charge remained in one of the tunnels at the Semipalatinsk test site until 1995. According to reports, it was not a nuclear bomb or warhead but a unique device with a 0.3-0.4 kiloton charge designed for testing the resistance of weapons and equipment to the destructive effects of an atomic explosion. [8] Because removing the device was considered too dangerous, the charge was destroyed in May 1995 inside the tunnel.[9] However, a 1995 report by Murat Laumulin indicates that the destruction “only succeeded in rendering the chemical explosive ineffective, while nuclear materials remain intact deep underground.”[10] Details on the destruction operation, device, and the amount of nuclear material involved are classified.

In February 1995, one source reported that there were in fact three more nuclear devices remaining in vertical shafts at the Semipalatinsk test site, one of them with a 150 kiloton charge. However, no other reports have corroborated this information.[11]

Sources:
[1] “T. Aubakirov, deputat: ‘Atomnaya bomba broshena na ulitse'” [“T. Aubakirov, MP: ‘Nuclear Bomb Abandoned on the Street'”], Channel 31, February 15, 2007, www.31.kz.
[2] “Na ustanovke ‘Yava’, raspolozhennoy na territorii poligona Azgir, ne proizvodilis yadernye vzryvy — MEMR RK” [“The Yava installation located on the territory of Azgyr test site was never used for nuclear explosions”], Gazeta.kz; in Integrum Techno, February 19, 2007, www.integrum.ru.
[3] Zhibek Amirbayeva, “Informatsionnaya bomba” [“Information bomb”], Megapolis, February 19, 2007, www.megapolis.kz.
[4] For example, the Yava-1M installation is mentioned in the “Military Test Sites” section of the Kazakhstan country profile on the NTI website, citing documents from 1995, www.nti.org.
[5] “Military Test Sites,” Kazakhstan country profile, NTI website, www.nti.org.
[6] “USSR Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (Employment of Nuclear Explosive Technologies in the Interests of National Economy),” USSR Nuclear Weapons Tests and Peaceful Nuclear Explosions, 1949 through 1990, Ministry of Atomic Energy of the Russian Federation, 1996, http://npc.sarov.ru.
[7] Richard Stone, “Kazakhstan: Plutonium Fields Forever,” Science, vol. 300, no. 5326 (23 May 2003), pp. 1020-1024.
[8] “Russia and Kazakhstan plan to remove nuclear device remaining at Semipalatinsk,” Nuclear Facilities, Kazakhstan country profile, NTI website, May 1994, www.nti.org.
[9] “Destruction of ‘nuclear device’ in tunnel 108 in Semipalatinsk,” Nuclear Facilities, Kazakhstan country profile, NTI website, May 31, 1995, www.nti.org.
[10] Murat Laumulin, “Political Aspects of Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Policies,” Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1995, pp. 84-90.
[11] “Three nuclear devices remain at Semipalatinsk test site,” Nuclear Facilities, Kazakhstan country profile, NTI website, May 1994, www.nti.org.

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