De-fanging a Nuclear Monster

November 25, 1994

The world is a safer place because of Project Sapphire. Thanks to good teamwork by the U.S. Defense, Energy and State Departments, one of the gravest nuclear security gaps was plugged. Thanks to the wisdom and initiative of Kazakhstan's old Communist leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, one huge temptation is denied to the forces of terrorism, corruption and covetous rogue countries.

It was a secret mission brought off with flare and efficiency worthy of the hottest days of the Cold War. A team of American nuclear specialists was spirited into a padlocked but insecure warehouse in Ust Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan. They prepared 1,300 pounds of highly enriched uranium -- the stuff of 25 nuclear bombs -- for shipment.

Two giant C-5A cargo planes of the U.S. Air Force carried it in a series of short flights through Europe to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. From there it was trucked, Monday and Tuesday, to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Now the material, originally made for Soviet weapons, is secure. It is denied to the terrorists, hijackers and black market arms salesmen who haunt the former Soviet Union. It cannot be hostage to any future strife between the Russian and Kazakh populations that share Kazakhstan, the second largest former Soviet republic. It will not feed the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Iraq or any other regime able to pay.

It will in time be transformed into safe fuel for the commercial nuclear power industry.

This stuff was detritus of the ecologically reckless Soviet nuclear build-up, and of its post-Soviet build-down. The stockpile passed into Kazakhstan's control. It was no longer wanted, but incredibly dangerous just sitting there. Accounting was so lax that if someone smuggled a little out, Kazakhstan would not know.

The transfer was cleared with Russia, so the material cannot become a source of friction between what are still the two nuclear superpowers. Russia has begun public accountability in its own nuclear program, publicized its weaknesses, and at least started to upgrade storage and accounting. Ukraine has sent hundreds of nuclear warheads to Russia for dismantling. But better this dangerous material go to Tennessee, where it is safe, than to Russia, where it would further tax the Russian nuclear safety program.

This operation follows the publicized appearance of small amounts of smuggled Russian plutonium for sale in Western Europe. It is the fruit of a failed U.S. effort to acquire the fuel from six nuclear bombs that South Africa is wisely dismantling. Nuclear proliferation is still one of the gravest perils facing the world, as the crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions made clear. What has happened is a major advance for non-proliferation through splendid cooperation by former Cold War enemies.

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