Sandia LabNews

Sandia expertise helps nations of former Soviet Union safeguard stockpiled nuclear materials

Chester Hine, an engineer in International Projects Dept. 5823, will never forget visiting a research reactor at a small institute in the former Soviet Union where he encountered nuclear material stored in a dilapidated wooden shed.

"The stuff was behind a wooden door in an unsecured area — easy prey for someone to steal and sell on the black market," Chester says. He was there as a Sandia representative to provide technical consultation on the design, evaluation, and implementation of a physical protection system for the nuclear material. By the time the project, which Chester managed, was completed a few years later, the site was secure with a fence, electronic surveillance equipment, sensors, metal gates, and steel doors.

Chester is one of about 50 Sandians who travel regularly to the former Soviet Union as part of the DOE-sponsored Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) program to develop security systems that protect direct-use nuclear materials — specifically highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These materials could be used in a weapon.

Teams of two to four engineers from Sandia and five other national laboratories, with one engineer designated the team leader, assist scientists and engineers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, and Georgia to evaluate security needs, develop security systems, and purchase and install necessary physical protection systems at sites housing nuclear materials.

DOE allocated $132 million this last fiscal year to pay for the designs, upgrades, equipment, and engineers’ time; Sandia’s share was $37 million.

Program started after breakup

J.D. Williams, Manager of International Projects Dept. 5821, says the program — which today has security upgrade projects at 53 different sites across 11 time zones — was started shortly after the breakup of the former Soviet Union.

"Until then, protection of nuclear materials was not a problem," J.D. says. "The Soviet Union was a totalitarian government, and guards were everywhere. People would not even think of stealing the materials. They knew they could not get away with it."

But after the breakup, materials control became haphazard, and conditions were ripe for theft. Fewer guards were on duty, little money was available to maintain facilities, and many workers were paid only sporadically because of the troubled economy.

It’s easy to imagine some desperate person knocking down a wooden door to get to nuclear materials that could be sold on the black market for as much as $1 million — a fortune, especially in a country where typical monthly salaries range from $100 to $400.

"The fear was that a terrorist group or third world country would obtain the materials and use them to make nuclear weapons," J.D. says. That concern was magnified last month as Russia’s economy continued to collapse and the ruble’s value plummeted.

And while keeping nuclear materials in an unprotected wooden shed was an extreme example, all Russian facilities were well below western standards of security and needed serious upgrades.

The MPC&A program, originally part of the Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (Nunn-Lugar) Program, was assumed by the DOE in 1995. It encourages interaction between American and Russian labs.

Friendship and trust

"In the beginning, relationships weren’t very open," J.D. says. "The Russians wouldn’t tell us much at all. Eventually they let us visit their smaller, less important sites. They eventually became more open when they saw we were sincere and able to provide what we promised."

Chris Robertson (5823) has been working with the program for about three-and-a-half years at four sites and left for his 26th trip to the former Soviety Union last week. He says the "friendship, cooperation, and successful mission" stage of his security systems work begins only after "they [the Russians] find out you’re not a spy and see the technology actually being installed."

"We told them we would do something and got in and did it," J.D. says. "That’s how we built trust."

The key to getting the Russians and others from countries that made up the former Soviet Union to "buy in" to the program and build trust was to give them "as much hands on experience" as possible, says Mark Baumann of Materials Protection Program Dept. 5318.

"We are there as consultants. With our guidance and oversight they determine what is needed, design the systems, buy the equipment, and do the installations," Mark says. He has lead security efforts at nuclear materials sites in Russia and Belarus.

Classes in physical security are taught at many of the major sites. Recently a Russian methodological training center was established at Obninsk, a city outside of Moscow. In addition, the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, a university somewhat comparable to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is offering graduate courses in MPC&A.

Also involved in getting the necessary buy-in and trust was a culture change.

"The first thing we always hear in a project is that they [the Russians] want a bigger, better fence around the perimeter of the site," says Barry Schoeneman of International Projects Dept. 5824. "They want to be protected from the outside in."

The culture change comes in teaching them that the best protection comes from the inside out.

"You need to protect the area closest to the material," Barry

More was involved in securing the nuclear materials than putting up fences and installing surveillance equipment, however.

"They had a real lack of accountability of their nuclear materials," J.D. says. "The countries of the former Soviet Union had no idea how much material was out there. They had a few paper records, but none were very good."

Los Alamos, other labs involved, too

Los Alamos National Laboratory has taken the lead in helping the countries develop computerized accounting systems. Several other labs have worked on materials control procedures. And while they have made a dent in understanding how much nuclear material is out there, they are still far from having accurate counts, J.D. says.

Earlier this year the MPC&A program completed upgrades at four Russian facilities, including the Sverdlovsk Branch of Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering and the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power plant, both near Yekaterinburg, the Pulse Research Reactor Facility at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Technical Physics near Chelyabinsk, and the Moscow State Engineering Physics Institute in Moscow. Commissioning ceremonies marking the completion of some significant upgrade projects were held in May at the sites.

By the end of 1998 the program is expected to have 25 facilities with upgraded MPC&A systems, protecting hundreds of tons of weapons-usable material from theft or diversion.

The MPC&A program is slated to run through 2002, but it seems unlikely that it will end that soon, says Rebecca Horton, Manager of Materials Protection Dept. 5318. She oversees disbursement of DOE dollars for the projects.

"When we started in the early 1990s, we made assumptions regarding the scope of the problem and the kinds of work we could accomplish with the Russians," Rebecca says. "We also assumed that the Russian economy was going to improve. Now we know more about the scope of the problem, and the Russians have asked us to work in additional areas. There is a possibility this type of work could be extended."