It is often easy to ignore the news when something bad does not happen. The Washington Post reported Sunday that hundreds of pounds of plutonium, enough for dozens of nuclear weapons, lay buried for years in Kazakhstan at the Semipalatinsk test site after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. After prodding by scientists, the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan entombed the plutonium in concrete so it could not be seized by scavengers, terrorists or states with malevolent intent. Good work — and the end of the story, right?
Not quite. Should the world face another moment in which a nuclear weapons state is caught in upheaval, the Semipalatinsk operation offers valuable lessons for the future. Perhaps the most striking is the need to overcome mistrust and secrecy so the abandoned plutonium can be found. The Post article and a longer report by the Belfer Center at Harvard make clear that a major hurdle was pinpointing the material near Degelen Mountain. Russia, successor to the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, knew the whereabouts, but it was reluctant to reveal them. The coordinates emerged slowly, over more than a decade, largely because scientists and experts collaborated to ease suspicions. They acted without cumbersome negotiations and treaties. Nuclear security dangers are still out there. Russia, with the world’s largest stocks of nuclear materials, has made great strides, but these materials remain scattered across an archipelago of bunkers and buildings. Pakistan, which has ramped up the pace of its nuclear bomb-building in recent years, is a continuing worry as a possible target of terrorist attack.
Nuclear security should always be a story of bad things that do not happen. That requires hard work and vigilance to make sure nuclear material that could be used for a bomb is never stolen.
The Washington Post (Aug. 21)