It was 3 a.m. on a freezing November night in 1994. Trucks carrying almost 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium had just left a nuclear facility in an industrial town in eastern Kazakhstan. They were headed to the Ust-Kamenogorsk airport, where U.S. military planes were waiting to carry their dangerous cargo to the United States. As the weather worsened, the trucks began to slide on black ice.
“I just couldn’t imagine having to report to Washington that [one of the trucks with highly enriched uranium] slid right off into the Irtysh river,” recalls Andy Weber, who at the time served as chief of the political-military affairs section at the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan. His counterpart from Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, Gen. Vladimir Bozhko, was equally concerned: “It started raining heavily, and temperatures dropped below freezing. The road turned into a skating rink. And those were huge trailer trucks with containers full of uranium. You can imagine, if one of the containers dropped or a trailer overturned, what would happen.”
This treacherous ride was a culmination of a secret U.S.-Kazakh operation codenamed Project Sapphire. Looking back three decades later, the story of its success reveals that trust between countries can make the most challenging and high-stake cooperative security initiatives a reality.
In the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union collapsed and all its former republics plunged into economic crisis, the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Kazakhstan’s Ust-Kamenogorsk region fell on hard times. Most of its production lines had to be frozen, with no orders coming from Russian facilities. Ulba’s employees went without salaries for months, a fate common for most industrial plants across the vast territory of the disintegrating Soviet Union. But Ulba wasn’t just any industrial plant. It used to be the flagship of the Soviet nuclear industry and supplied almost half of all fuel pellets used in Soviet-type nuclear power reactors. It also produced beryllium and tantalum, valuable dual-use materials indispensable for space and missile programs.
In 1993, Kazakhstan was preparing to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state. Before opening its nuclear facilities for the International Atomic Energy Agency to implement safeguards, it conducted some internal housekeeping. Ulba, almost bankrupt, stored something of great value and danger at its warehouses: almost 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. During the Soviet era, Ulba fabricated highly enriched uranium fuel pellets for the secret Soviet nuclear submarine project Alfa. After the Soviet collapse, the material was just left at Ulba.
Kazakhstan’s leadership wasn’t keen on keeping any nuclear material: The government had made a strategic decision not to pursue a nuclear path and had no use for nuclear material. Interest in Kazakhstan’s nuclear facilities from nuclear wannabe countries added to the sense of urgency.
Against this complex backdrop, the Kazakh government came up with a plan to offer its highly enriched uranium to a safe buyer — the United States. While the decision was taken at the highest political level, it was deliberately communicated in an informal way. In September 1993, Ulba’s director, a man named Vitalii Mette who had previously served as a naval officer on a Soviet nuclear submarine, reached out to Weber at the U.S. embassy. They met discreetly in an office belonging to a hunting equipment company. Later that same day, Mette and Weber met again, now joined by the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, William Courtney. Mette informed the American diplomats about uranium at his facility without disclosing the amount or level of enrichment.
Politics and Practicalities
In December of 1993, U.S. Vice President Al Gore traveled to Almaty, where the Kazakh parliament voted to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state, capping two years of U.S.-Kazakh diplomacy on Kazakhstan’s nuclear future. Against the backdrop of the diplomatic success, Mette disclosed further details of Ulba’s stash. Mette’s messenger passed Weber a note which read: “U235, 90 percent, 600 kilos.” Uranium enriched to 90 percent and in that quantity was enough to fill 20 bombs, and it sat at a facility in Kazakhstan with little protection. Alarm bells rang full-force in Washington.
Despite this, Washington was slow to act. Foggy Bottom immediately sent an urgent request for the embassy to provide more information, but then Washington paused on the issue for an entire month. Why? The timing provides one possible explanation. Washington was preoccupied with wrangling Ukraine into giving up nuclear weapons, and with North Korea refusing International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit its sites. Another explanation could be the challenge presented by the sheer novelty of the situation. The U.S. government had to remove significant quantities of weapons-usable material produced by its former archenemy, the Soviet Union, from a newly independent country. No template existed for such an operation.
In February of 1994, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev arrived in Washington to meet with President Clinton. During the visit, Courtney and Weber asked Nazarbayev in confidence if the United States could send a technical expert to Ulba to check the material. Nazarbayev granted them permission, and that elevated the communication about the operation to the highest political level.
Meanwhile, U.S. policymakers tried to determine how to move forward through the inter-agency process. Not everyone thought bringing Kazakh uranium to the United States was the best idea. Some preferred Russia to take back the material, thereby saving Washington all potential “legal, financial, and logistical headaches.” In the end, though, Russia showed no interest in the material. Russian Vice President Viktor Chernomyrdin told Gore the Americans could have the highly enriched uranium. Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev also talked to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was indifferent.
In October of 1994, three U.S. military C-5s cargo planes, carrying a U.S. technical team and equipment, landed in Ust-Kamenogorsk. For an operation deemed top secret, the roar of three gigantic airplanes descending at a provincial airport was hard to hide. The team consisted of 25 technical contractors, a communications technician, a medical doctor from the Department of Energy, and four members of the On-Site Inspection Agency, a Pentagon group that verified the destruction of nuclear missiles under the U.S.-Soviet agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces.
The team came prepared for complete self-sufficiency. They brought their own heaters, generators, and supplies, including ready-to-eat meals (to cut time for lunch breaks). Technical experts worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week. The bus brought them to the site before daylight and returned them to their hotel after nightfall to minimize exposure to the public.
In four weeks, the team handled 2,200 kilograms of material and packed roughly 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium into more than 400 shipping containers. They successfully handled toxic and corrosive material without a problem, but the operation wasn’t without security glitches. In an after-action report, the military complained that the civilian members of the team “failed to grasp the gravity of their situation.” Compared to the military members of the team, the civilian technical experts had less-rigorous security training. Thrown into an unusual situation in a foreign land, they disclosed sensitive information during health and welfare phone-calls home on unsecured lines and chatted about classified details of the operation in the hotel lobby. Still, the same report praised the technical expertise of the team: “The composition, technical competency, and ingenuity of the [Department of Energy] technical team was perfect for the nature of the project: there were no technical problems that could not be handled by the team.”
One of the main challenges remained once the highly enriched uranium was packed and ready to be removed. Due to mechanical issues with the aircraft and erroneous weather reporting, the C-5s staged at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base were late returning to Kazakhstan. When the moment finally came to transport the uranium to the airport, the weather changed for the worse. Under the cloak of night, a convoy of trucks accompanied by Kazakh security forces made its way to the Ust-Kamenogorsk airport in sleet, ice, and rain conditions. As Weber would later joke, “Thankfully, in that part of the world, people know how to drive. Even on black ice.”
Similarly difficult conditions awaited at the airport. The airport workers used a truck-mounted jet engine to blow off ice and snow. The first plane was loaded with half of the uranium and took off immediately. Two more planes followed the next day, carrying the rest of the nuclear fuel, the technical team, and the equipment. The aircraft flew nonstop to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Lt. Col. Mike Foster, in charge of the airlift, would later describe the mood on the plane: “We were sitting there in the cockpit, writing Tom Clancy novels in our heads about what would happen if we had to go down.”
The planes landed safely in the United States, and the Kazakh uranium was loaded on “safe and secure transports.” The Pentagon’s Ashton Carter and William Perry described these trucks as “a veritable funhouse of violent tricks that immobilize, stun, or kill anyone who tries to hijack them or tamper with them.” For added safety, they were tracked with radio beacons throughout their drive to Oak Ridge.
What Made Project Sapphire Possible?
Several factors made Project Sapphire possible: Kazakhstan’s strategic decision to pursue a non-nuclear path, Russia’s lack of interest in the material, Washington’s readiness to innovate, and the trust between Kazakhstan and the United States.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan had more than a thousand nuclear warheads, more than a hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles, and dozens of heavy bombers, in addition to tons of nuclear material and critical infrastructure. Kazakh leadership made a strategic decision to pursue a non-nuclear path. While the decision was crucial for the fate of nuclear weapons, it was even more consequential for the fate of nuclear material and infrastructure. The Kazakh government did not have access to command and control of weapons, but it fully controlled material and infrastructure. Had it wanted an indigenous nuclear program, Kazakhstan would have been off to a good start with the material it had.
Russia not being interested in the uranium meant that Kazakhstan and the United States could proceed without any additional negotiations with Russia. It remains unclear whether top Russian nuclear officials simply forgot about the material. Maybe the few people who knew about it at the Ministry of Atomic Energy moved on and could not call attention to it. The Soviet Union’s questionable accounting practices likely didn’t help either, as no precise numbers on the amounts of nuclear material at Soviet facilities existed. In any case, having two instead of three countries dealing with a sensitive operation reduced the political and bureaucratic burden.
The U.S. government had never dealt with anything like this before and relied on its willingness and ability to innovate, not only about how to do it but how to pay for it. The Departments of Energy and Defense paid for their involvement in the operation, and the Department of State reimbursed Ulba for the uranium. Some of the compensation came in the form of in-kind assistance for medical facilities at Ulba and in the Semipalatinsk region that had suffered from Soviet nuclear tests. Furthermore, Project Sapphire supplied equipment for material protection, control, and accounting at Ulba, and computer equipment for several of Kazakhstan’s government agencies. Under Project Sapphire, Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center received patrol vehicles, computer and photo equipment, computer software, and medical supplies. The United States also contributed funding toward nuclear-science projects that paved the way for cooperative work on nuclear security in the future.
Above all, what made this unique and sensitive operation possible was the fundamental trust between the governments of Kazakhstan and the United States. With only a couple of years’ worth of diplomatic relations, the two countries dealt with serious political, technical, security, and logistical challenges. “We passed the audition,” American officials joked when the operation was over. The success of Project Sapphire laid the foundation for close U.S.-Kazakh cooperation in the nuclear and biological security fields under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program for decades to come. After Project Sapphire, Kazakhs were ready to tell Americans about other sensitive security challenges they faced, ranging from spent fuel containing tons of plutonium to unprotected samples of Soviet collections of rare infectious diseases.
Togzhan Kassenova is a Washington, D.C.-based senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research (SUNY-Albany) and a nonresident fellow with the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. She is the author of the recently released Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2022).
Image: IAEA Imagebank