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Kazakhstan: Fissile Material: Project Sapphire

Kazakhstan: Project Sapphire

Kazakhstan | Fissile Material Overview | Project Sapphire

On 21 November 1994, 581kg (1,278 pounds) of HEU was transferred from the Ulba Metallurgy Plant 20 miles outside of the northern Kazakhstani city of Ust-Kamenogorsk to the Y-12 plant at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, in a highly secret project code-named "Sapphire." The project was initiated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev with the full knowledge of Russia, according to Kazakhstani Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Mette, in order to prevent the possibility of diversion by terrorists, or by any of the so-called nuclear threshold states near Kazakhstan. Government officials claimed that apart from the plutonium in missiles remaining on its territory, Kazakhstan no longer has any significant nuclear stockpiles. William H. Courtney, the US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, led the secret negotiations in cooperation with the Kazakhstani government and the US Departments of Defense and Energy. 

The uranium, reportedly left over from the Soviet Union's secret Alfa submarine program, had been stored at Ulba in unsecured and unsafeguarded facilities, without electronic means of accounting. Instead, quantities were simply recorded by hand into books.

Experts estimate the uranium was sufficient to make 20-25 nuclear bombs, though it was said a "skilled bomb-maker" could have produced as many as 36. One estimate said the material was sufficient for up to 50 bombs. Kazakhstani experts maintained that only about 5 percent of the HEU was pure enough to be used for weapons, while the rest would have required further processing. Thirty-one technicians, led by Oak Ridge scientist Alex Riedy, went to Kazakhstan to repackage the uranium into 1,300 steel canisters for shipment by two C-5 transport planes from Kazakhstan to the United States.  Empty canisters marked with Tehran addresses were reportedly found in the room next to the one where the uranium was stored.

The United States agreed to compensate Kazakhstan for the material, though the transaction was "not handled as a straight business deal." The US compensation to Kazakhstan, though undisclosed, was estimated at between $10 and $20 million, in both cash and in-kind assistance.[1-8] The compensation package was delivered by August 1997 and included the following: eight pursuit vehicles with radio and patrol lights; five mini-vans; eight light pick-up trucks; four buses with radios; 20 Nikon 35mm cameras plus lenses, flash assemblies and cases; 102 computers; 80 printers; 10 scanners; assorted software; 10 photocopiers; and medical supplies.[9]  According to a 29 July 1996 Nuclear Fuel report, the US Enrichment Corp. (USEC) planned to sell LEU (on DOE's behalf) derived from the Kazakhstani HEU in mid-1997. After the material was shipped to DOE's plant, USEC hired Babcock & Wilcox Naval Nuclear Fuel Division to blend down the HEU. According to B&W, roughly 90% of the material was in the form of uranium mixed with beryllium and a binding agent; the rest was in the form of uranium oxide or metal. The average enrichment was 89-90%. Proceeds from the sale of the blended material were to go to the US Treasury.[10]

Defense Secretary William Perry said conditions for Project Sapphire may have been unique, and that there were no plans to carry out any further such transfers.[11]

At the time, Vitaliy Nasonov, then deputy chief of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy Information Department, indicated that the amount of HEU transferred to the United States from Kazakhstan could only have been about 167kg of tablets of uranium-235-beryllium alloy, and 27.4kg of uranium-235 dioxide powder-- which comes to a total of only 194.4kg. Possible military uses for the Kazakhstani uranium were dismissed, as Russian experts believe that only Russia and the United States are capable of producing a bomb from uranium-235 alloyed with beryllium. The 27.4kg of uranium-235 dioxide could only be converted into weapon-grade uranium after costly processing. Nasonov's claims are contradicted by both Kazakhstan and US reports.[12]  For a US report on the material see "Sapphire Sampling Plan," Prepared by Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant (December 1994).
[1] William C. Potter, "The 'Sapphire' File: Lessons For International Nonproliferation Cooperation," Transition, 17 November 1995, pp. 14-19.
[2] R. Jeffrey Smith, "Kazakhstan Site Had Lax Security," Washington Post, 24 November 1994, p. A52.
[3] "Kazakhstan Says Nuclear Deal Boosts Disarmament," Reuter, 24 November 1994.
[4] Jim Adams, "US-Kazakhstan Uranium Deal May Be One Of A Kind," Reuter, 24 November 1994.
[5] "Nuclear Bomb Fuel (sic) Cache Found In Kazakhstan," Reuter, 22 November 1994. 
[6] Andrey Baganov, "Kazakhstan obogashchaet USA uranom," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 25 November 1994.
[7] Sergey Kozlov, "Uranovaya sdelka okazalas vesma vygodnoy," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 26 November 1994.
[8] Vladimir Nadein, "Besprimernaya uranovaya sdelka Kazakhstana i USA - kommertsiya ili POLITIKA?," Izvestiya, 25 November 1994.
"Project Sapphire," Defense Threat Reduction Agency Web Site, http://www.dtra.mil/ctr/ctr_kazakhstan.html. {Entered 7/9/2001 NA}    
[10] Nuclear Fuel, "USEC Slated to Sell Sapphire Material Blended to 4% LEER, for DOE Next Summer," 19 July 1996, p. 4.
[11] Jim Adams, "US-Kazakhstan Uranium Deal May Be One Of A Kind," Reuter, 24 November 1994.
[12] Kommersant-Daily, 25 November 1994, p. 4; in "US Version of Uranium Deal With Almaty Questioned," FBIS-SOV-94-228, 25 November 1994. {Updated 8/23/96 GB} 


Responding to a 24 October 1996 Washington Times report that the amount of Kazakhstani highly enriched uranium (HEU) was 120 pounds (54.5 kg) short of the initially declared weight of 1,278 lb. (581 kg), Kazakhstani Ambassador to the United States Bolat Nurgaliyev stated that no material was diverted before the United States shipped away the HEU purchased from Kazakhstan. He underscored that the Kazakhstani HEU weight declaration was an approximation subject to verification of the United States. Nurgaliyev also described that in 1992, Iranian representatives made contact with the Ust-Kamenogorsk facility (where the HEU was stored), "but what they were trying to buy was not HEU." He added that there was "absolutely no indication Iran was interested in HEU." Kazakhstan renounced its possession of nuclear weapons in 1993, signed the NPT, shipped all warheads to Russia and signed the HEU deal with the United States. Nurgaliyev said that the United States compensated Kazakhstan for the HEU, providing between $20 million and $30 million in cash and goods in kind.
[1] Rowan Scarborough, "Tale told of how Iran nearly got nuke gear," Washington Times, 2 November 1996, p. 3.
[2]  Kazakhstanskaya pravda, "So storony Kazakhstana 'nedovesa' yadernykh materialov net," 31 October 1996. {Entered 11/4/96 GB}
The Washington Times reported that a 120-pound (54.5 kg) shortage has been discovered in the process of blending down the Kazakhstani HEU shipped to the United States on 11/21/94 under Project Sapphire. The initially declared amount of the HEU was 1,278 lb. (581 kg). A US Department of Energy (DOE) spokesman commented that there was difficulty in obtaining precise measurements of the HEU contained among 2.4 tons of discarded metals, oxides, and uranium-beryllium alloys shipped from Kazakhstan. DOE issued a statement that said, "both governments clearly understood that the quantities of highly enriched uranium were imprecise. The point was to secure the material first and perform precise characterization of the material later." In response to a question of whether it was possible that the HEU could have been diverted between the time the HEU was inspected in Kazakhstan and the time the material was put on US planes, Assistant Secretary of Defense Kenneth Bacon said that there was adequate security during all parts of the shipment of the Kazakhstani HEU. He added that there was no indication that any of the Kazakhstani HEU may have been ended up in Iran. The DOE's statement specifically denied that any of the material is missing or stolen. According to a 30 August 1996 memo of the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the estimated cost for Project Sapphire "will be approximately $3.5 million inclusive of the first year of storage costs." On 27 October 1996, the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency issued a statement that Iran reserves the right to file a complaint to the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding some "US officials' claim" that the missing portion of the Kazakhstani HEU shipped to the United States under Project Sapphire could have been stolen by Iran.
[1] Rowan Scarborough, "Kazakh Uranium Shipment Is Shy Enough For Two Bombs," Washington Times, 24 October 1996, p. 3;
[2] Rowan Scarborough, "Tale Told Of How Iran Nearly Got Nuke Gear," Washington Times, 2 November 1996, p. 3.
[3] Kenneth M. Bacon, DOD News Briefing, 24 October 1996, US Department of Defense Website,  http://www.dtic.mil/defenselink/.../t102496_t1024asd.html.
[4] Nucleonics Week, "Sapphire HEU Is Less Than DOE First Claimed, Government Admits," 7 November 1996, p. 15.
[5] Tehran Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, "Iran's Rejection of the New United States Claim," 28 October 1996;  in "Iran: Commentary Views Disagreement With U.S. on Kazak Uranium," FBIS-TAC-96-010.] {Entered 11/4/96 GB, Updated 12/13/96 GB}
Izvestiya reported that Russia's Minatom could only account for one-third of the HEU that the United States removed under agreement from Kazakhstan's Ulba fuel reprocessing facility in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Minatom believed that only 200 kg of HEU were at the facility; however the United States airlifted 600 kg back to the United States.
[Mark Hibbs, "Report Suggests Minatom Doesn't Know How Much HEU It Has, Officials Say," Nuclear Fuel, 5 December 1994, p. 12.]
The uranium that was transferred from the Ulba Metallurgical plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk to the Oakridge Lab in the United States in Project Sapphire had been in unsecured and unsafeguarded facilities, without electronic means of accounting. The amounts of radioactive materials present were physically recorded by hand into books. Reportedly, this was not an isolated case of inadequate MC&A in Kazakhstan.
[1] William C. Potter, "The 'Sapphire' File: Lessons For International Nonproliferation Cooperation," Transition, 17 November 1995, pp. 14-19.
[2] R. Jeffrey Smith, "Kazakhstan Site Had Lax Security," Washington Post, 24 November 1994, p. A52.

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