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The Secret Effort To Clean Up a Former Soviet Nuclear Test Site 74

Posted by Soulskill
from the head-down-to-the-plutonium-dump-and-grab-me-something-shiny dept.
Lasrick writes "The Plutonium Mountain report has just been released by the Belfer Center at Harvard. It describes the remarkable effort the U.S. made to get the Russians to recognize the nuclear proliferation risk they left behind at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test when the Soviet Union collapsed. In this interview with Siegfried Hecker, he describes how he and other scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory recognized the risk to world security as the Semipalatinsk site became overrun with metal scavengers. Quoting: 'The copper cable thieves were not nomads on camelback, but instead they employed industrial excavation machinery and left kilometers of deep trenches digging out everything they could sell. We were concerned that some of that copper cabling could lead to plutonium residues.'"
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The Secret Effort To Clean Up a Former Soviet Nuclear Test Site

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    His name is Borat and he is from The Great Khazakstan...

  • if it is on slashdot
  • by bryanandaimee (2454338) on Tuesday August 20, 2013 @02:16PM (#44621553)

    Reading the summary I thought "No big deal, so some contaminated dirt is out there and someone might refine it for a few grams of plutonium residue."

    But then I decided to read the article. It was slashdotted of course so I went on Google and found the article at a non-slashdotted site. (I know, not really the slashdot way.) All I can say is, HOLY PLUTONIUM Batman! Not residue from tests, but hundreds of pounds of plutonium metal in useable form. Enough for dozens of nuclear bombs. And they capped it and left it there! And now they are telling the world where it is. I'm speechless. (Other than the preceding text of course.)

    • by Russ1642 (1087959)

      I read a book a while back called The Atomic Bazaar. Getting your hands on nuclear weapons materials isn't as difficult as it should be.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      One of the most difficult problems with nuclear materials production is removing the desired materials (fissionable) from the undesired ones. So having hundreds of pounds of plutonium may not be nearly as big of a deal as you might think, if it is mixed in with thousands of pounds of other materials. "Dirty bomb(s)" might have been producible from the materials on the site, but actually construction nuclear weapons seems unlikely without a monumental undertaking.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 20, 2013 @03:57PM (#44622843)

        One of the most difficult problems with nuclear materials production is removing the desired materials (fissionable) from the undesired ones. So having hundreds of pounds of plutonium may not be nearly as big of a deal as you might think, if it is mixed in with thousands of pounds of other materials. "Dirty bomb(s)" might have been producible from the materials on the site, but actually construction nuclear weapons seems unlikely without a monumental undertaking.

        No. This was unburnt fissile material - U235 and/or Pu239 - from nuclear tests, conveniently buried underground. The hard work (enrichment of U235 or making sure that there was no pesky Pu240 in the mix) had been done by Soviet weaponeers. Extracting that material from an atomic test site is nontrivial, but a hell of a lot easier than producing it from scratch.

        The unstated assumption was that atomic test sites, being some of the most secure sites in any country, would remain secure. That assumption failed when the USSR broke up, and these sites became map locations in a real-life game of Fallout: former top-secret military bases left unguarded and chock-full of with loot for any intrepid, foolish, or batshiat crazy explorer to poke around in. 99% bottlecaps (copper wire), 0.99% deathtraps (hello, cancer!), and 0.01% game-altering resources for well-equipped villains with nefarious intent.

        The awesome thing about this story is that weaponeers from both sides of the Cold War, deeply conscious of the need for each side to preserve its secrets (samples of melted glass from the inside of an underground Soviet test site would still be an intelligence bonanza for the US), managed to find a way to come together and secure the site without compromising each other's secrets. Good on ya, guys. And thanks.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          "This was unburnt fissile material - U235 and/or Pu239"

          Yes, but as you stated its burred underground, mixed with tones upon tons of dirt, metals (from the casings, detonators, wires, etc), glass and other materials. Separating flecks of unburnt fissile material out of all of that would, as I said, be a "monumental undertaking" (at least for a non government group). Sure it could be done, but it would be dangerous, difficult, costly & have a high chance of failure (US spy satellite sees excavation acti

    • by DaveAtFraud (460127) on Tuesday August 20, 2013 @02:47PM (#44621989) Homepage Journal

      The "test site" is an area about the size of Begium or New Jersey depending on which geographic comparison works better for you. The primary reason for getting and keeping the Russians involved was because they knew where to look (from TFA). Yeah, it's kind of "security through obscurity" but it's a big area and part of the effort was to seal the nastier hot spots so it would take a significant effort to come in and dig them up. Finally, part of the continuing effort is to monitor the area with drones, seismic sensors, CCTV, etc. There's also a little bit of trying to scare off the metal scavangers by hinting that the copper cables and other metals that they might be able to recover are radioactive and could be VERY unhealthy to be around.

      Cheers,
      Dave

      • There's also a little bit of trying to scare off the metal scavangers by hinting that the copper cables and other metals that they might be able to recover are radioactive and could be VERY unhealthy to be around.

        Risk hasn't seemed to deter any of the people who routinely break into power stations and (try) to steal copper from energized equipment.

    • by icebike (68054)

      All I can say is, HOLY PLUTONIUM Batman! Not residue from tests, but hundreds of pounds of plutonium metal in useable form. Enough for dozens of nuclear bombs. And they capped it and left it there! And now they are telling the world where it is. I'm speechless. (Other than the preceding text of course.)

      With the collapse of the soviet union, packing up that much plutonium and trucking it back to Russia would have been a fools errand. I suspect those involved didn't expect the disruption to be permanent, and didn't think the local population had any capability utilize it, or to even understand what they had under their feet.

      But still, there are horror stories almost as bad right here in the US. The Hanford site is again leaking [nbcnews.com] and DOE was perfectly happy to ignore it for years [king5.com].

      Do you suppose the Russians

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        With the collapse of the soviet union, packing up that much plutonium and trucking it back to Russia

        While it would be ignorant of me to pretend that the Soviet Union wasn't mostly a modern version of a Russian empire, to say that everything that was Soviet must be a Russian problem after is (to exaggerate a bit) like blaming Britain when something goes wrong in Australia.

        Do you suppose the Russians would reciprocate and sent people to help with Hanford?

        If the Americans would let them, they'd freaking love it... a chance to show to everyone that the Americans need their help?

        • by icebike (68054)

          to say that everything that was Soviet must be a Russian problem after is (to exaggerate a bit) like blaming Britain when something goes wrong in Australia.

          Well, the present situation is sort of akin to saying anything that happens on Bikini Atoll is an American problem once the US decided to use this quiet little pacific paradise as a bomb test site. The Bikini-ans, like the Kazakhs, had no such technology then or now, and had little choice in the decision to use their land as test sites. How could it possibly be THEIR problem?

      • by IgnacioB (687913) <matt_c_watkins@yahoo.com> on Tuesday August 20, 2013 @05:49PM (#44624053) Homepage
        I don't get how 50 gallons of nearly dry Strontium at the bottom of an annulus (that's the empty space between two tanks) with cameras watching it is anywhere near "almost as bad" as the tens or hundred of kilograms of plutonium spread across the equivalent of small European country, but whatever. People forget they're paying a bill for an arms race and the legacy of cleaning up from a hastily engineered atom bomb in WWII and subsequent Cold War ain't cheap! To the tune of BILLIONS of dollars actually. Russians have been (and continue to visit and help) at Hanford. That was part of the article about building trust. I've visited with them before...bright folks with some incredible experience and wisdom.
        • by kermidge (2221646)

          The full article is a very good read; very instructive as to what can be done through all the obstacles especially when much of the effort is basically off the books. They did an amazing job of it.

          It's one of the ironies of the times that those who could benefit the most from reading things such as this are the very ones almost guaranteed not to read them, everyone from hasty ignorant AC's to people at the top of the power game.

          But AC (#44622843), DaveAtFraud, and a few others have gotten the point. (Sorr

          • by IgnacioB (687913)
            Totally read it! Seriously cool grist for a guy that worked in dosimetry as a clerk until they figured out I could do dBase and let me loose on organizing their exposure database several decades ago. I didn't have the formal schooling to be an expert in nuclear physics, but always an amateur interest. One of the good things the Department of Energy (and they've done many other dumb things) did was encouraging and sponsoring these kinds of exchanges.
  • [...] could lead to plutonium residues.

    Don't you just love the ambiguity of natural language?

  • by Gothmolly (148874) on Tuesday August 20, 2013 @02:24PM (#44621677)

    Spread it out everywhere, it's the quickest way to get rid of it.

    • Nuke it from orbit, it's the only way to be sure.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Nuke it from orbit, it's the only way to be sure.

        Again?

    • by kwikrick (755625)

      plutonium is not only highly radioactive, it's also extremely poisenous. You don't want this stuff in the air or in the ground water. It tends to accumulate in your bones. You'll have to spread it really very very thin to make it mostly harmless.

      • Plutonium is not highly radioactive. Take a slug of Plutonium 239, wrap it in a plastic bag, stick it in your pocket and you are good to go.

        Highly radioactive elements have short half-lives.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by IgnacioB (687913)
        Yes and No. It is a high alpha emitter, but that is low-energy and blocked by a piece of paper. It's not a big beta or gamma producer. The problem is more the poisonous effects and internal deposition....as alpha can make it through several nearby cells easily. This notion of spreading it out is rather ludicrous. Even if you could collect it all up (think big mining operations that produce massive amounts of waste itself) and then tried to spread it...it's a heavy metal and likes to clump. Unless you
    • Spread it out everywhere, it's the quickest way to get rid of it.

      Dilution isn't the answer to everything, typical homeopathic.

    • by IgnacioB (687913)
      The old "dilution is the solution to pollution" theory. It doesn't work so well on thinks like transuranic waste. So, what level of "spreading" is OK? What happens when streams concentrate it downstream into the oceans and it gets into fish? Is it OK to eat a salmon with 100 nanocuries of Pu239 or a steak with 1 microcurie of Cesium 137? It may be quick, but it's not the best...or even the easiest. In fact, stabilization is the far better way to go and let time take care of it.
  • "We were concerned that some of that copper cabling could lead to plutonium residues."

    Translation: the puppies that were stolen may have rabies, so please to not steal any more of them and to leave the ones you already have alone. Not to buy either, so we can fool, err... sorry, meant 'worry', anyone that might have same bright idea into forgetting about it, thank you.
  • I'm sure that in 2013 plutonium is available in every corner drug store, but in 1955 it's a little hard to come by.

  • by bobbied (2522392) on Tuesday August 20, 2013 @02:32PM (#44621773)

    What is the concern here? That a bunch of metal scavengers would make off with enough Plutonium to do what? Make a dirty bomb? Pretty unlikely.

    I must be in the dark or something, because I just don't see this as a serious issue. Three are a whole lot of other issues in the old USSR that deal SERIOUS radiation hazards. There are multiple rusting submarine hulks and surface ships with spent fuel still on board just sitting there and their industrial energy production made a huge mess all over the place. The test range is not a big risk compared to all this.

    Now if they start seeing a bunch of North Koreans showing up hauling off equipment... THEN I get worried...

    • Righto. Random off the cuff comment from Slashdot poster 2.52E6 trumps a decade of careful work by trained scientists in several countries.

      Of course! However, if you're really serious, I suppose YOU could sit there in buttfuck Khazakstan and watch for North Koreans (careful, they're small) for several half lives. You'd even get free Potassium!

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Poisoning themselves? Selling plutonium-contaminated copper to companies/countries wiring up cities? Selling such plutonium-contaminated copper to companies in China or elsewhere, ending up in toys and lighting fixtures and the such in the US (somehow or other bypassing border checking)?

    • by sjames (1099)

      Consider, the metal scavengers might sell the plutonium to NK at a no questions asked discount.

  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Tuesday August 20, 2013 @03:05PM (#44622219) Homepage Journal

    A Democrat and a Republican saw a genuine national security threat and agreed on a way of combating it without macho bullshit. They pushed their solution through even though it involved the unpalatable idea of sending money to a former enemy full of people certain to steal it. As this story shows, it worked.

    • I think the timing was also right. That was in 92 before the news really went full tilt with selling tickets to partisan boxing. It also helped that the communist "threat" had just collapsed. The powers that be were preoccupied with figuring out who we should be afraid of next to justify more defense spending, and anyway this sent some money their way.
    • Non proliferation is on the very short list of things that both sides of the aisle and pretty much every President since Kennedy agree on.

  • Uranium makes great stuff to shoot at Iraqi tanks.
    Is that mess cleaned up yet?

  • Joshua: "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess? "

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