Secret Kazakh-US Mission to Secure Nuclear Materials Celebrates 20th Anniversary, Exemplifies Cooperation Needed Today

On Nov. 18, exactly two decades have passed since Kazakhstan and the United States concluded Project Sapphire, a joint secret operation conducted in 1994 to remove approximately 600 kilogrammes of highly-enriched uranium from the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Eastern Kazakhstan. The then highly classified operation is no longer a secret, which makes it even more captivating for the public, experts, and politicians. The declassification unveiled the true historical significance of the step Kazakhstan made, changing the nature of its nuclear policy towards a more pro-active direction.

Project Sapphire started after the President of Kazakhstan asked the United States for help in disposing of about 25 Hiroshima-sized bombs-worth of weapons-grade Uranium-235 that had previously been stored at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant enrichment facility in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, unknown to Kazakhstan. The highly-enriched material had been located at the Ulba plant since at least 1976, where it was stored mostly in composite materials. Part of it was in a semi-processed state. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the fuel was poorly documented and secured and in danger of being sold for use in building nuclear weapons.

The amount of nuclear materials, initially aimed at producing a new type of reactor for Soviet submarines, was enough to produce more than two dozen powerful nuclear bombs. Processing the highly radioactive and, therefore, extremely dangerous material within Kazakhstan was technologically impossible and in order to avoid the risk of the uranium falling into the wrong hands and to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the substance needed to be transported either to Russia or the United States.

It was during the second official visit of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to the United States in February 1994, during his meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton, when a joint Kazakh-U.S. secret programme to transport the uranium to the American nuclear facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was masterminded. The specific details of Project Sapphire were conceived and executed in an atmosphere of high secrecy. In spite of the fact that the operation was characterised by multiple negotiations, expert exchanges and trips that involved many ministries, most of the participants knew only about their part of the operation. All information was held in secret until the plane carrying the cargo landed in the United States.

The successful conclusion of Project Sapphire was announced at a press conference both in Kazakhstan and the United States in late 1994. In January 1995, the then Minister of Science and New Technologies Vladimir Shkolnik, summed up the essence of the event in a press interview. He emphasised that the operation was not a random, one-time occurrence. “Rather, it was part of a broader Kazakhstan government policy, which was being pursued on multiple levels,” he said. On Dec. 23, 1994, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Meyers announced that the United States and the Republic of Kazakhstan had successfully completed the transfer of nuclear materials for safe storage in the United States.

Project Sapphire became one of Kazakhstan’s first and most serious steps on the road to full nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. It is perhaps the most emblematic of the nature of cooperation needed to help stave off another global arms race.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Kazakhstan inherited the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world after those in Russia, the United States and Ukraine. This arsenal included 1,040 nuclear warheads, each one megaton of TNT equivalent in strength, 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 40 Tu-95 strategic bombers armed with 370 tactical nuclear warheads on air-launched cruise missiles. Additionally, Kazakhstan was home to the former Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk nuclear weapons test site.

Even before declaring independence, on Aug. 29, 1991, President Nazarbayev put an end to 40 years of developing and testing nuclear weapons at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. Upon independence, he voluntarily renounced the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal and by April 1995, Kazakhstan transferred all of its nuclear warheads to Russia, completely dismantling the nuclear testing infrastructure at the Semipalatinsk test site by July 2000.

For over 20 years now, Kazakhstan has been committed to achieving global nuclear disarmament and security. The legacy of the hundreds of tests that have taken place on Kazakh soil has had a terrible impact on 1.5 million people and led the country to initiate the adoption of UN General Assembly Resolution 64/35, which designated Aug. 29 as the International Day against Nuclear Tests. The commemoration is intended to increase public awareness of the risks and impact of nuclear testing to make political leaders accountable to their commitments.

Another of Kazakhstan’s global advocacy campaigns, The ATOM Project, is mobilising people worldwide to call on their leaders to ban nuclear weapons testing. The name of the project is an acronym formed from the first four letters of the English alphabet which stands for Abolish Testing. Our Mission. At its core is an international petition campaign designed to unify global public opinion against nuclear weapons testing that features the tragic and hopeful stories of survivors of nuclear testing from the Semey region.Under the project, anyone anywhere who stands against nuclear weapons can sign an online petition, urging world governments to abandon nuclear tests forever and ensure the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Acknowledging the right of every country to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, Kazakhstan is negotiating to host the International Low-Enriched Uranium Bank under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) auspices. The major challenge in this area is enabling this expansion while taking precautionary measures against proliferation.

At present, Kazakhstan is a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The country signed the Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in February 2004 and is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Kazakhstan acceded to the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism on Sept.16, 2005 and is an active partner in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. On Sept. 8, 2006, the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian States – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – signed the Treaty of Semipalatinsk, which established a Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ). It entered into force in March 2009 and the zone was recognised by the five nuclear weapon states in May 2014.

The threat of the uncontrolled expansion of the nuclear club remains one of the most serious problems of the 21st Century. Unless the international community shows political will, the number of states possessing nuclear weapons can increase irreversibly, leaving the entire world liable to feel the consequences.

Project Sapphire is a real success story and a great example of how cooperation, strong will and a sense of responsibility should be used to put an end to nuclear weapons testing and eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenals. That is especially accurate twenty years on as we witness the distrust and disagreement gripping military and diplomatic elites in nuclear powers and in other countries contemplating the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities. Astana has proved a reliable partner that is ready to go to great lengths when it comes to strengthening global and regional security, showing the kind of responsibility and leadership needed in this sensitive area.