The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration reported last week that NNSA administrator Jill Hruby and principal deputy administrator Frank Rose completed a trip to Kazakhstan on October 5 to meet with the country’s government officials. The trip served as a chance for Hruby and Rose to thank the officials for the nonproliferation and nuclear security partnership that exists between the United States and Kazakhstan. According to the NNSA, notable achievements under the partnership include Project Sapphire (see more below), the conversion of three research reactors, and efforts to counter nuclear smuggling.
Kazakhstan has partnered with the DOE and the NNSA since the early 1990s on multiple projects related to nonproliferation, nuclear security, radiological security, and countering nuclear smuggling. Cooperation has included security enhancements, trainings, workshops, and exercises.
NNSA activities: Hruby visited Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center, where she toured the IVG.1M research reactor. In March 2022, the IVG.1M reactor was converted from using high- enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, the culmination of more than 10 years of collaboration between Kazakhstan and the United States. IVG.1M was the third research reactor converted to the use of LEU fuel in Kazakhstan. Hruby also toured the BN-350 cask storage facility and the experimental field of the Semipalatinsk test site as part of a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the end of U.S. explosive nuclear testing.
“Kazakhstan has been an outstanding partner of the United States on nuclear security and nonproliferation for over 30 years,” said Hruby. “Few places better exemplify the close cooperation of our two countries than the city of Kurchatov and the Semipalatinsk test site.”
Hruby and Rose both stopped in Almaty to visit the Institute of Nuclear Physics and the Nuclear Security Training Center. The institute is home to a research reactor and critical assembly that were converted to the use of LEU fuel and from which the last remaining HEU fuel was repatriated in 2017. The NNSA noted that the conversion ensured that material from the site could never be used by terrorists for an improvised nuclear device.
Rose also met with senior government officials in Astana to discuss the NNSA’s and Kazakhstan’s long partnership on countering nuclear smuggling.
“We’re proud of the decades-long U.S.-Kazakhstan cooperation,” said Rose. “We feel strongly that now more than ever we must continue working together to make the region safer through our commitment to nuclear security and nonproliferation.”
The NNSA works globally to prevent state and nonstate entities from developing nuclear weapons or acquiring weapons-usable nuclear or radioactive materials, equipment, technology, and expertise.
Project Sapphire: More than 25 years ago, a team of American specialists completed the unprecedented operation Project Sapphire. Working with the Kazakh government, the team helped to secure more than a half ton of HEU that had been abandoned from a Soviet submarine project during the Cold War, according to declassified documents, videos, and photographs of the National Security Archive.
The operation took place in the autumn of 1994, when the team of 31 Americans covertly slipped into a remote area of Kazakhstan to secure the 1,320 pounds of weapons-grade uranium and airlift it safely out of the country to the United States. From October 14 to November 11, 1994, the teams repackaged the uranium into 448 shipping containers, and on November 20 and 21, two U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy aircraft carried the material and the team to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The flights took several aerial refuelings to complete. The HEU was then trucked to the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., to be downblended.
Project Sapphire was the first major operation by the United States to secure vulnerable nuclear material in the former Soviet Union under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, known as Nunn-Lugar for its principal sponsors, Sens. Sam Nunn (D., Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R., Ind.). The effort was a joint project of the Departments of Defense, Energy, and State and the Kazakh government.