Twenty years ago this week, in a spectacular operation, the United States transported from Kazakhstan to Oak Ridge, Tennessee over 600 kilograms of at-risk, weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) for safekeeping. It could have been used to fabricate more than twenty nuclear weapons. This secret undertaking, part of a broader cooperative de-nuclearization effort, shows how a mix of favorable circumstances, strategic trust and innovative approaches can ease nuclear dangers.
The success of Project Sapphire was a victory for Kazakhstan. It had the courage to trust its new relationship with the United States to help prevent the proliferation of dangerous material to countries that might seek to build nuclear weapons. Sapphire was a gain for the United States as well. For decades, Washington has maintained a robust nonproliferation policy, but it had to adapt tools and capabilities to respond with agility to an unprecedented risk. Above all, Project Sapphire was an accomplishment for the global nuclear-nonproliferation regime, ensuring that a huge quantity of HEU would not fall into the wrong hands.
As it became independent in December 1991, Kazakhstan’s leaders stepped up to the plate and made the responsible decision not to retain leftover Soviet nuclear weapons. Several factors facilitated the decision.
First, Kazakhstanis had developed nuclear neuralgia. Decades of careless nuclear testing in the northeastern region of Semipalatinsk had caused untold health and environmental damage. Taking advantage of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) campaign, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear public-protest movement emerged. Over one million Kazakhstanis signed petitions for a ban on nuclear testing. Kazakhstani leaders took advantage of this development to enhance their legitimacy at the expense of rulers in distant Moscow.
Second, Kazakhstan had no interest in militarily deterring possible Russian or Chinese aggression. With millions of ethnic Russians living in the northern rim of the country, leaders in Kazakhstan did not want to stir trouble. Nearly all transport routes in and out of Kazakhstan traversed Russia. Factories and farms depended on Russian markets, supplies and technologies. After the Stalin era, ethnic Kazakhs, Slavs and other nationalities lived together peacefully. The Russian language was the lingua franca in national economic life. China posed no evident major military threat to Kazakhstan. Uyghurs who lived on the other side of the Chinese border in Xinjiang were seen as a friendly Turkic people.
Third, Kazakhstan lacked the technical capacity to sustain nuclear forces. All Soviet nuclear-weapons assembly and major maintenance facilities and laboratories were in Russia. Kazakhstanis would have opposed continued nuclear testing required to maintain or modernize nuclear weapons.
Fourth, the United States and Kazakhstan developed strategic trust that advanced the de-nuclearization agenda. Early on, Secretary of State James Baker visited Kazakhstan twice and engaged President Nursultan Nazarbayev on de-nuclearization and energy cooperation. Days before the Soviet Union collapsed on December 25, 1991, Nazarbayev told Baker that Kazakhstan would declare itself to be a non-nuclear state when it was admitted to the United Nations.
During a May 1992 meeting with President George H. W. Bush in Washington, Nazarbayev pledged to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state. Following on discussions that Secretary Baker held with Nazarbayev, Senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn visited him in Almaty to discuss Cooperative Threat Reduction, an initiative they created and funded. In December 1993, during a visit by Vice President Al Gore, the Kazakhstani parliament assented to the NPT. In February 1994, Nazarbayev visited Washington again and met with President Bill Clinton. This led to even deeper bilateral ties, reinforced by sustained diplomatic engagement at working levels, and ultimately the creation of a Gore-Nazarbayev Commission.
In Budapest in December 1994, representatives of Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed a memorandum that offered political assurances to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine—the three states that had inherited Soviet strategic nuclear weapons—against threats or use of force against their territorial integrity or political independence, provided they de-nuclearized. The Budapest Memorandum underscored existing commitments from the NPT and the United Nations Charter so as to provide greater confidence to the three to cede their nuclear weapons and associated infrastructure.
Fifth, economics encouraged de-nuclearization. Only Western energy companies had the technology and capacity to help Kazakhstan exploit its large but challenging oil reserves. Even before the Soviet collapse, Chevron reached out to Nazarbayev about the huge Tengiz deposit on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstani leaders realized that obtaining Western support for energy development hinged on the country’s ceding nuclear weapons and joining the NPT. The strategy worked. Tengiz became the first major foreign investment in the former Soviet Union, and it remains successful today.
In this context, in mid-1993, Kazakhstan sought U.S. help in dealing with a cache of HEU stored in a metallurgy factory in the northeastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk (now Oskemen). HEU was periodically shipped there from Russia to be shaped into fuel pellets to power Soviet Alfa-class fast-attack submarines. After the USSR collapsed, authorities in Moscow lost track of the HEU. When asked, they initially denied its existence and later declined to take it back.
Kazakhstan sought U.S. help. For a while, Washington was unsure what to do. Then assistant secretary of defense Ashton Carter oversaw a priority effort to retrieve the HEU and have it sent to Y-12, a U.S. Department of Energy facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where American HEU was kept.
The retrieval effort was secret. Iranians had visited the factory in Ust-Kamenogorsk to seek beryllium for their nuclear program. (After realizing the stakes, Kazakhstan declined to sell it.) U.S. officials knew little about the players who were aware of the Kazakhstani HEU, their agendas and the possibility of near-term diversion. Secrecy forestalled a public debate in Russia that could have gone in unpredictable directions, and possibly have led to ill-advised measures to block U.S. retrieval.
Deciding options in Washington was also challenging because of the newness of the problem. America had never brought foreign-origin HEU into its homeland. Safety and environmental issues loomed large. They had to be addressed carefully to avoid triggering political or activist opposition.
Washington organized a dramatic rescue. Department of Energy (DoE) technicians flew to Ust-Kamenogorsk and worked with great skill to prepare the HEU for shipment. A fleet of giant U.S. C-5 cargo aircraft, operating in icy, wintry conditions in a remote region, flew the HEU nonstop halfway around the world to Dover Air Force base in Delaware. It was loaded onto specialized DoE trucks and driven to Y-12. The HEU was placed under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and then down-blended over time into fuel to power U.S. commercial nuclear reactors.
Hours after the arrival at Y-12, the U.S. Secretaries of State, Defense and Energy held a rare joint press conference. Secretary of Defense Bill Perry praised the “extremely sensitive” mission.
The payoff from Project Sapphire was felt in the years that followed. The accumulated trust highlighted by the operation encouraged Kazakhstan to seek U.S. help on biological weaponry. Cooperation funded by the Nunn-Lugar program led to the destruction of the world’s largest factory for the production of anthrax, a legacy of Soviet excesses.
The de-nuclearization and dismantlement of Kazakhstani nuclear-weapons infrastructure proceeded smoothly. Not so in some other cases. In Ukraine, resentment toward Russia and perceptions of threats were greater. This required intensive diplomacy to encourage Ukraine to agree to de-nuclearize. The development of new strategic trust with the United States, and the prospect of estrangement from the West if it did not de-nuclearize, influenced Ukraine’s decision making.
As we now know, the Ukrainians were prescient about future threats. But hanging onto nuclear weapons that Ukraine lacked the capacity to service and secure would have left it vulnerable to mishap and perhaps more severe Russian coercion. Many Ukrainians now question what additional security they gained through the Budapest Memorandum. This raises an issue about the credibility of U.S. and United Kingdom nuclear security assurances, an uncertainty that might affect other nonproliferation undertakings.
Over the past few decades, several states have abandoned nuclear-weapons programs or allowed the removal of nuclear-weapons-usable material from their territory. In each case (e.g., South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Libya), circumstances and motives differed. South Africa was transitioning from apartheid, Argentina and Brazil were moving from military to civilian rule, and Libya worried that if the United States was going to war against Iraq because of concern about weapons of mass destruction, it might also decide to threaten Libya.
No other countries, however, approached Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in the sizes of their nuclear holdings. The three, despite their shared USSR legacy, followed different paths to de-nuclearization. The many factors that spurred it in Kazakhstan may not be replicated in other countries of concern. Nonetheless, its landmark achievements two decades ago, like those of other de-nuclearizing countries, were essential in their own right. They may offer some guideposts for achieving nonproliferation goals in other contexts. Even if not, they are well worth commemorating for their exceptional contributions to global security.
A principal lesson of Sapphire is that trust opens doors to cooperation to reduce dangers, but this must be supported by creativity, hard work and funding. No one could have predicted that a Project Sapphire would occur. Its success highlights the importance of America’s maintaining a full diplomatic and operational tool set to respond to future contingencies.