From National Tragedy To National Pride
by Defense Threat Reduction Agency Andrea Chaney
February 15, 2020
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has been quietly
carrying out a collaborative nonproliferation mission with the
government of the Republic of Kazakhstan for more than 26 years.
DTRA’s mission is to enable the Department of Defense, the
United States Government and international partners to counter and
deter weapons of mass destruction and improvised threat networks.
The ongoing project at the former Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS) in
Kazakhstan is an example of the critical nonproliferation work that
DTRA accomplishes with allies and partners around the world.
The Semipalatinsk Test Site dates back to the origin of the Soviet
Union’s nuclear program. Established in 1947 and referred to as “The
Polygon,” the site covers nearly 7,000 square miles of remote steppe
in eastern Kazakhstan.
September 23, 2019 - Members from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the National Nuclear Center (NNC) walk from tunnel closure areas on Degelen Mountain at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in eastern Kazakhstan. The mountain was used by the Soviet Union for 186 underground tests after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1961 banning atmospheric, outer space and under water testing. As part of a nonproliferation effort within the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, DTRA conducted 181 tunnel closures from 1993-1996.
(Defense Threat Reduction Agency photo by Andrea Chaney)
On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union
conducted their first nuclear test. Over a 40 year period, they
conducted 456 nuclear explosions at Semipalatinsk, 116 aboveground
and 340 underground.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union
in 1991, the testing not only ceased, but many of the scientists and
military personnel abandoned the site and fled the country. They
left behind a vast complex of tunnels and boreholes across the test
site. Most worrisome, the Soviets left unexpended nuclear materials,
completely unsecure, presenting an extreme danger to the public and
a significant proliferation risk to the world. The people of the
newly-formed Republic of Kazakhstan looked to their new government
to solve the problem.
“There was a very strong non-nuclear
sentiment in the newly formed country of Kazakhstan at the time,”
said Luke Kluchko who was the first project manager from the then
Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), now DTRA, who assisted in helping
Kazakhstan recover from the disaster left behind from the Soviets.
“The country’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev,
immediately declared the site closed. There was a cancelled nuclear
test that the Soviets had been preparing which remained in a tunnel
for a number of years until they could figure out what to do with
it,” Kluchko said.
To properly eliminate the workings of the
test site, Kazakhstan created the National Nuclear Center (NNC) on
May 15, 1993. The current General Director for the NNC, Erlan
Gadletovich Batyrbekov, said that after the closing of the test
site, a new set of issues came up that needed to be resolved by
“It was necessary to eliminate the
infrastructure of nuclear weapons testing,” Batyrbekov said. “It was
necessary to resolve the issues associated with eliminating the
consequences of testing such weapons. There was much concern about
how to accomplish this large and serious task.”
In the summer
of 1994, Kluchko represented the DNA as part of a U.S. interagency
expedition to the test site that spent six weeks assessing the
Degelen Mountain area of the Semipalatinsk Test Site. After the
Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, and test
detonations of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space and
underwater became prohibited, the Soviets used the Degelen Mountain
site for 186 of the 340 underground nuclear tests conducted at
“As a group, we were able to suggest to the
NNC leadership that it would be in everyone’s best interest to
quickly and safely seal the nuclear test tunnels,” Kluchko said.
“All whose portals were wide open, 181 of them,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, the Republic of Kazakhstan sent an official
request to United States Secretary of Defense William Perry to
consider providing assistance to safely eliminate its infrastructure
of nuclear testing. The assistance would come from the Nunn-Lugar
Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, which would be absorbed
into DTRA in 1998.
“The project started in earnest,” said
Kluchko. “Within a year we destroyed the first tunnel and did about
60 tunnels per year. Essentially within 36 months, we were able to
complete the infrastructure elimination process,” he said.
Batyrbekov said that as of today, the entire infrastructure has been
“The infrastructure has been put in a state
which will not allow it to be used again for the purposes for which
it was created,” he proudly stated. “But after the elimination of
the infrastructure, there were other goals, specifically the
elimination of the consequences of nuclear testing,” he said.
“This kind of work is being continued to eliminate focal points
where there is sensitive information in terms of nonproliferation,”
he said. “All of this needs to be eliminated and that is exactly
what we are doing with DTRA’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program.”
Several years after the initial Degelen Mountain project
concluded, the NNC started a program to comprehensively evaluate the
entire Semipalatinsk Test Site for radiological concerns. They
worked their way from the north side of the site to the south side
and saw there were areas where nuclear material was still present,
and in some cases, in concentrations that would be considered a
DTRA once again partnered with the NNC to
eliminate the remaining risk. In 2013 the two agencies agreed to
conduct a full, systematic survey of the Experimental Field where
the earliest nuclear tests took place, and concluded there was still
work to be done.
“Initially, material left behind from some
of the atmospheric or surface tests remained evenly dispersed on the
surface,” said Mark Gibson, current program manager for DTRA
activities at the Semipalatinsk Test Site. “In some cases, we could
dig up these concentrations and take to secure storage off-site. In
other cases where it was less concentrated, we’d plow the areas and
further dilute it so it would be less easily detectable for someone
Batyrbekov praised the work done by the NNC
“DTRA is probably one of our biggest partners
in the entire history of the National Nuclear Center, not only in
terms of the financial support we receive, but also in terms of the
significance of the projects that we implemented,” he said. “The
elimination of infrastructure - the scope of this work is very
Batyrbekov said his team continues to conduct a
realistic radiological assessment of the territory at the
Semipalatinsk Test Site today, and are more than 70 percent complete
with the goal of surveying the entire territory by 2021.
Gibson said the partnership between the NNC was built on the likes
of his predecessors, like Kluchko, and continues to remain rock
solid through today.
“It’s important for us to maintain a
relationship with the NNC and the Government of Kazakhstan,” Gibson
said. “I’ve grown used to saying the proliferation risk has been
greatly reduced here, but it will never be zero; that’s just the
reality of a former nuclear test site.”
“I give a lot of
credit to Kazakhstan for embracing a nonproliferation regime in
circumstances that were not ideal for them,” said Gibson. “I think
our work at the Experimental Field has been an extension of making
the world a safer place.”
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