Subzero temperatures, curious intoxicated onlookers, and the logistics involved in providing security to transport nuclear materials 1,860 miles by train across the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan were just some of the challenges a
Sandia team overcame to complete the removal of spent fuel containing 11 tons of highly enriched uranium and 3.3 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from a Soviet-era nuclear breeder reactor.
The successful removal of the materials — enough to make an estimated 775 nuclear weapons — stored in the reactor in the Caspian Sea port of Aktau in western Kazakhstan was a major milestone in Sandia’s and the nation’s nuclear nonproliferation efforts, says Dave Barber, who worked at the time for the Global Physical Security Program (6811), part of the International Homeland and Nuclear Security Strategic Management Unit.
The last concrete and steel cask was transferred to a long-term storage facility in northeast Kazakhstan on Nov. 18. The trip to transport the casks to their long-term storage facility would be like traveling from Washington, D.C., to Albuquerque through a sparsely populated, moonscape-like steppe.
The removal of the weapons-grade materials marks the completion of 14 years of work that began in 1996 under then-Sandian Roger Case, now retired. Dave took over the project at the start of its second phase in 2003, making about 45 trips to Kazakhstan to complete the work.
Making things safer in the world
“We’re making things safer in the world,” Dave says. “Before it was protected, the materials were vulnerable to theft by those who would steal them to build nuclear weapons. This project has secured enough material to make 775 nuclear weapons. That gives us a great feeling and should make people feel much better.”
NNSA oversaw the project as part of its Global Threat Reduction Initiative. In addition to Sandia, NNSA’s team also included Idaho, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest national laboratories, the US Defense and State departments, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency, several contractors, and the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
Sandia protected the fuel while it was stored at the BN-350 reactor and at a temporary, outdoor concrete storage pad in Aktau; along a journey by train across Kazakhstan to Kurchatov; while it was at another interim storage pad there; and along a truck route to a long-term concrete storage pad in northeast Kazakhstan.
Sandia also conducted vulnerability studies that Dave used to brief Congress, the Pentagon, and members of the National Security Council. Sandia, in conjunction with Albuquerque-based Technology Management Co., also provided extensive travel and international field logistics for the project, Dave says.
“The United States was very worried about this material not being protected well enough and that it could be stolen, so the United States offered to protect it,” Dave says. “In the interior, it would be much more difficult for adversaries to try to steal it.”
Reactor produced plutonium for Soviet weapons program
The BN-350 reactor at the Manigstau Atomic Energy Complex, which started operations in 1973, was a Soviet-era fast-breeder reactor used to produce plutonium for the former Soviet Union’s weapons program. It also generated steam for electricity, heat, and water desalination to provide drinking water. It was shut down by the Kazakh government in 1999.
The reactor sits on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. The busy port is a point of departure for ships carrying oil from Kazakhstan to Baku, Azerbaijan, where the oil then enters pipelines that take it to Europe.
The fuel rods were placed into canisters and then into 60 100-ton concrete and stainless steel casks. The casks were stored on a pad outside the reactor before being loaded into shipping containers to make the four-day train journey to Kurchatov, where they would be unloaded and placed onto trucks for the trip to their long-term storage facility.
Sandia worked with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Interior troops, providing them with technical advice, communications equipment, and other support, Dave says.
“We talked to them a lot about how they would do a response to any incident that occurred and agreed on how this would be done,” Dave says.
To make sure all would go smoothly, Dave was one of three Americans who traveled on the train during a dry run of the journey in December 2009 before they began transferring the spent fuel rods. The trip was to ensure that the security plan worked, that the loading and unloading of the casks went off without a hitch, and that communications were reliable.
“The physical protection during the transportation was the most difficult part of the project,” Dave says.
John Franklin of National Security Studies Dept. 0545 researched options for procuring two rail cars that carried guards on the train, one serving as a backup in case the other was hit. Before the train left, rail crews checked the thousands of miles of tracks for explosives. The trains were given top priority as they crossed the country, Dave says.
At a late-night stop during the dry run, two intoxicated people approached guards and started asking questions about the train. Dave says Kazakh troops were called to the scene, where they arrested the two people.
The incident gave Dave reassurance that the systems Sandia and Kazakhstan had put in place would work.
‘We could count the trees’
“It gave us a good feeling that indeed people were actually there, even though we didn’t always see them and they didn’t want to be seen and attract too much attention,” he says. “But it did emphasize that the plan was good and we felt much better about it.”
During that four-day train ride, Dave says he looked for changes in the terrain that adversaries could use to attack the trains along the route. He needn’t have worried.
“What we found was that one end of Kazakhstan looks much like the other end. It was very flat, no real hills, few trees,” he says. “We could count the number of trees.”
The real runs started in February, which brought on the next challenge: the weather. Temperatures dropped to minus 42 Celsius, which was too cold for the cranes that unload casks from train to operate.
“The last thing we would want to do was to have those things drop,” he says.
Luckily, the temperature “warmed up” to minus 20 Celsius when the train arrived at its destination, so things could proceed as planned.
The 12 trips from Aktau to Kurchatov and then to the final location went smoothly, Dave says.
“There were no incidents during the hot runs when we had the fuel in there. We count that as a success,” he says.