Crossroads Asia

Project Sapphire: 20 Years Later, and Still Relevant

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Crossroads Asia

Project Sapphire: 20 Years Later, and Still Relevant

What can be learned from a successful effort to retrieve enriched uranium from Kazakhstan?

November 20, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the completion of Project Sapphire – a top-secret operation to transport 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Kazakhstan to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. I researched the denuclearization of Kazakhstan during the 2012-2013 academic year through Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. This article calls on interviews with many of the key players involved, as well as a year in Russia and Kazakhstan, to offer some insights on the success of the operation and highlight lessons that can be applied to how Washington manages relations with the successor states of the Soviet Union today.

The U.S. recognized the independent state of Kazakhstan on December 25, 1991. In May 1992, Kazakhstan signed the Lisbon Protocol to the START Treaty, requiring it, along with Belarus and Ukraine, to eliminate all strategic nuclear arms on its territory and accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS).

In December 1993, Vice President Al Gore visited Almaty. Among other things, he signed the agreement that allowed for the implementation of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program for the elimination of nuclear weapons systems and dismantlement of nuclear weapons infrastructure in Kazakhstan.

Before Gore’s visit to Almaty, political-military attaché Andrew Weber and U.S. Ambassador William Courtney learned of what would become a game-changer. There were 600 kilograms of HEU in the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk in northern Kazakhstan. At an enrichment level of 90 percent, the HEU was sufficient to fabricate twenty-four nuclear weapons.

Why did Kazakhstan fail to bring up the HEU during the CTR negotiations prior to Gore’s visit? Kazakhstani authorities were still overwhelmed with the burdens of their unplanned independence, and Moscow’s omnipotent control over the Soviet military-industrial complex meant that the successor states to the Soviet Union often lacked information about factories on their territory. One Kazakhstani official noted that determining what to do with the HEU at UMP became “a priority in the framework of discussions with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] over Kazakhstan[’s] ability to fulfill its obligations for nuclear safeguards.” For its part, Moscow denied the existence of the HEU at UMP. Given Moscow’s unwillingness deal with remnants of an aborted experiment, Kazakhstani authorities turned to the United States for help.

News of the unaccounted-for HEU generated concern in Washington. In January 1992, President Nursultan Nazarbayev had told Under Secretary of State Reginald Bartholomew that several Middle Eastern states had offered to purchase Kazakhstan’s nuclear warheads. Libyan President Mohommar Qaddafi reportedly had offered to pay $5 million for a single weapon. During his visit to the UMP in early 1994, Weber noticed a box labeled “Tehran.” It was later discovered that Iran sought to acquire beryllium from Kazakhstan, although the deal never materialized.

Washington formed a Pentagon-based, inter-agency “Tiger Team” in January 1994 to deal with the HEU. The Tiger Team spent the next eleven months planning, coordinating and implementing the HEU’s removal. The U.S. would directly purchase the HEU from Kazakhstan (for a figure that was not publicly disclosed but was based on the separated work unit value of the HEU at market prices) and would reward Kazakhstan for its continuing commitment to denuclearization and nuclear nonproliferation through increased funding for CTR programs in the country. Jeffrey Starr, head of the Pentagon’s Tiger Team, mobilized resources from the Departments of State, Energy and Defense, the three agencies that participated in Project Sapphire. As Starr wrestled with the Washington bureaucracy, he was in constant contact with Weber and Courtney, who coordinated operations in Almaty.

Throughout Project Sapphire’s planning, Washington was sensitive to Moscow’s possible concerns. When a U.S. embassy diplomat asked a senior Russian official about the HEU at UMP, similar to Russia’s earlier response to Kazakhstan, the official denied it existed. As preparations for Project Sapphire progressed, however, Russian officials contested the Tiger Team’s plans to purchase the HEU. Fortunately, through closed-door negotiations, Russian and American officials reached an understanding. At the June 1994 meeting of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, Gore raised with Chernomyrdin the U.S. intent to directly purchase the HEU from Kazakhstan. When Chernomyrdin did not object – a choreographed formality – this was the green light for the Tiger Team to move forward.

By October 1994, with Moscow in the loop, participating U.S. agencies committed, and negotiations with Kazakhstan over the compensation package all-but completed, Project Sapphire was ready to come to fruition. A team of thirty-one U.S. Department of Energy personnel arrived in Ust-Kamenogorsk, where they spent twelve hours per day, six days a week, repackaging fissile material. Over the course of six weeks, the team packaged 2,200 kg of material, including the 600 kg of HEU, into 448 shipping containers.

On November 19, 1994, the containers and team were loaded onto five C-5 aircraft in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Flying non-stop and refueling in mid-air, the aircraft landed at Dover Air Force Base on November 21. The containers were transloaded onto Department of Energy trucks and transported to Tennessee. By Tuesday, November 22, the HEU was in secure storage in Oak Ridge.

While a Hollywood-like story, Project Sapphire crystallizes how U.S. diplomatic, technical and financial resources came together to help Kazakhstan, a willing partner, make concrete progress towards becoming a NNWS.

Project Sapphire also has policy implications that are relevant today.

First, U.S.-funded global cleanout programs, specifically CTR, worked. Washington’s political, financial and technical support to Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus was critical in preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials. Today, there are nine member-states of the “nuclear club.” Imagine, if not for Nunn-Lugar, there could have been twelve, or more, nuclear-armed actors in the world.

Second, and most important, Project Sapphire demonstrates that cooperation between Washington, Russia, and former Soviet states is achievable, where common interests exist. Successful cooperation is not easy, and requires patience, persistence, political will and mutual respect from all sides. But it is doable.

Dena Sholk is an MA student at the Center for Eastern European, Russian, and Eurasian Affairs at Georgetown University, and was a Fulbright scholar in Kazakhstan (2013-2014). The views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author.