When the Soviet Union broke apart at the end of the Cold War, several of its military and science facilities fell into disrepair. One of them, the Semipalatinsk Test Site, just happened to be a nuclear test site the size of New Jersey and filled with leftover nuclear material that could potentially be made into weapons. Abandoned in what is today Kazakhstan, the test site is much less of a danger to the world, thanks to the quiet work of Russian, Kazakh, and American scientists over more than a decade, which as the Times reported over the weekend, is revealed in a new report published this month.
Siegfried Hecker was crucial to the American part of that equation. A former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, he became interested in Semipatalinsk after Kairat Kadyrzhanov, director of the Kazakh Institute of Nuclear Physics, visited Los Alamos. Kadyrzhanov spoke of the site’s problems, including radioactive hot spots and copper thieves. Here Hecker describes the scene on the ground when he arrived in 1998.
I was alarmed to find unmanned guard posts and virtually no security at the site. My Los Alamos colleagues and I became convinced that Semipalatinsk was not only a serious proliferation problem, but also an urgent one. 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.
Following that 1998 visit, Hecker worked with Washington, Moscow, and Astana to clean up the site. Stanford has an excellent interview with Hecker, who is now a research professor and senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. It covers everything from how they secured the site to which nuclear fears still keep Hecker up at night.