U.S. finds bomb-grade uranium in Kazakhstan

November 23, 1994|By Michael R. Gordon | Michael R. Gordon,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The United States has uncovered a large cache of bomb-grade uranium in Kazakhstan and secretly negotiated to bring it to the United States for safe storage, Clinton administration official disclosed last night.

The half-ton of highly enriched uranium, enough to make as many as 50 bombs, has been a major worry for administration officials since they learned of its existence. Officials did not disclose whether the material had reached the United States yet.

Administration officials said the nuclear material, located at Ust-Kamenogorsk, was poorly protected and represented a potential source of nuclear material for Third World states and arms traffickers.

An administration official said the matter had been kept so secret that it was given a code name, "Sapphire."

"It was insecure, and we wanted to get it out of there before anyone was tempted to make a run on it," the officials said.

A major worry was that the nuclear material from cash-starved Kazakhstan might find its way to Iran and Iraq.

A former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan has agreed to relinquish the nuclear arms it inherited with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It signed the treaty against the spread of nuclear weapons.

But while Kazakhstan had decided to give up its nuclear arms, it also inherited former Soviet nuclear installations and nuclear stockpiles.

One of those installations was a nuclear fuel fabrication plant at Ust-Kamenogorsk, where the highly enriched uranium was stored.

The size of the supply, the lack of advanced controls over the nuclear material and the general breakdown of law and order in the former Soviet Union made the bomb-grade material a major risk.

"It was totally unsecure," an nuclear expert said. "People were afraid that it might get swiped at any moment."

After Kazakhstan acknowledged having the material, the Clinton administration launched a secret effort to try to remove the material.

The negotiations were led by William H. Courtney, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and a former nuclear arms negotiator.

The U.S. goal in the months of secret talks was to arrange for the highly enriched uranium to be shipped out of Kazakhstan to a safe storage site.

Under the accord, the material is being sent to the Oak Ridge nuclear facility in Tennessee.

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