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Project Sapphire 20th Anniversary

More than a half-ton of weapons-grade uranium removed from Kazakhstan in 1994

Secret mission was first major success of Nunn-Lugar program, Landmark for U.S.-Kazakhstan cooperation against nuclear proliferation

Declassified documents include after-action report, analysis of HEU samples, Video of C-5 landings in Ust-Kamenogorsk, photographs of uranium

Sen. Richard Lugar keynotes Sapphire commemoration today

Hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies
1616 Rhode Island Avenue N.W., Room 212-C
Together with the Embassy of Kazakhstan
Monday, November 17, 5:30 - 7:30 p.m.

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 491

Posted November 17, 2014

Edited by David E. Hoffman, Svetlana Savranskaya, and Thomas Blanton

For more information contact:
202/994-7000, nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Related Links

Nunn-Lugar Revisited
November 22, 2013


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Video from the event, Project Sapphire 20 Years Later: Cooperative Threat Reduction and Lessons for the Future. Download Audio.
Photographs courtesy Andy Weber.

Andy Weber at Ust-Kamenogorsk during the March, 1994 visit.

After the shipment, Andy Weber (third from right) and others toast the successful operation. Left to right: Alnour Mousaev, Bolat Nurgaliev, Ki Fort, Vitaly Mette, Weber, Tania Chomiak, Janet Bogue.

Elwood Gift of the National Security Programs Office at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, who carried out the first mission to the Ulba plant with Weber in early March, 1994. A chemical-nuclear engineer, Gift had experience in most of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment.

While Weber and Gift observed in March, 1994, workers at the Ulba plant filed off pieces of the highly-enriched uranium for making an assay of the metal.

A worker opens one of the cannisters holding the HEU rods at the Ulba plant.

A worker handles HEU in one of the cannisters that had stored them at the Ulba plant.

One of the cannisters found at Ulba holding the HEU.

Elwood Gift at Ust-Kamenogorsk plant during fall packing.

Andy Weber and the head of security for the Ulba plant in front of the trucks loaded with HEU at Ulba for transport to the waiting airplanes.

Drums carrying HEU to be transported to the United States.

C-5B Galaxy on the tarmac in Kazakhstan.

Loading the Galaxy with the HEU in drums.

Trucks on the tarmac in Kazakhstan.

A bar of HEU on a workbench during the March, 1994 visit.

Andy Weber at the Ulba plant, fall 1994, with one of the drums used to haul away the HEU to the United States.

Washington, DC, November 17, 2014 – Twenty years ago this week a team of American specialists completed an unprecedented operation known as Project Sapphire, working with the government of Kazakhstan to secure more than a half-ton of highly-enriched uranium that had been abandoned from a Soviet submarine project during the Cold War, according to declassified documents, video and photographs posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).

The documents describe an extraordinary secret mission: In the autumn of 1994, the team of 31 Americans slipped quietly into a remote area of Kazakhstan to secure the 1,320 pounds of weapons-grade uranium and airlift it safely out of the country to the United States. From Oct. 14 to Nov. 11, 1994, working six days a week, 12 hours a day, the teams repackaged the uranium into 448 shipping containers. On November 20-21, two U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy airlifters carried the dangerous material and the team to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, with several aerial refuelings. The uranium was then trucked to the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee to be blended down.

"Project Sapphire" was the first major operation by the United States to secure vulnerable nuclear material in the former Soviet Union under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, known as Nunn-Lugar for its principal sponsors, Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana.) The effort was a joint project of the Departments of Defense, Energy and State; and the three Cabinet secretaries of those departments, William Perry, Hazel O'Leary, and Warren Christopher, proudly broke the news of Project Sapphire in their press conference on November 23, 1994.

Press conference by Defense Secretary William Perry, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary on Project Sapphire, November 23, 1994 Courtesy of Andy Weber.

The success of Project Sapphire provided a major impetus to the Nunn-Lugar effort, showing that relatively small investments could pay large dividends in securing nuclear material and averting proliferation hazards. The uranium in Kazakhstan was enriched to over 90 percent, and would have been an attractive target for nations seeking to build nuclear weapons.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the operation, the National Security Archive is posting Defense Department video and a collection of documents and photographs from Project Sapphire, many of them for the first time. The photographs show the uranium as it was initially viewed in March 1994 by Andy Weber, then a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Elwood Gift, a chemical-nuclear engineer from the National Security Programs Office at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Weber was the first U.S. official to learn of the existence of the uranium at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, and pushed the U.S. government to secure it.

The photographs and video also show the material being repackaged and loaded onto the aircraft for shipment to the United States in October and November 1994.

Excerpts from Department of Defense footage of Project Sapphire. Courtesy of Andy Weber.

At the time, Project Sapphire underscored the urgency of dealing with the problem of fissile material across the former Soviet Union. The Russian atomic energy minister, Viktor Mikhailov, had revealed in the summer of 1993 that Russia had accumulated much more highly-enriched uranium than previously thought by U.S. analysts, up to 1,200 metric tons. Outside Russia, less was known about the stocks, but much was feared. U.S. officials believed that Iran and Iraq were scouring the region in search of material to build nuclear bombs.

Among the documents published today is a declassified State Department cable written from the Moscow Embassy to Washington in July 1994, after the uranium was discovered in Kazakhstan but before the removal. The cable noted that workers at the two former Soviet nuclear weapons laboratories, Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70, had not been paid in three months. "While the existence of these financial difficulties does not necessarily mean that nuclear thefts will occur, the potential for such thefts to occur is clearly greater when workers are laid off or not paid and morale is low," the cable warns.

Another declassified State Department cable describes the 1992 meeting between Senators Nunn and Lugar in Kazakhstan with President Nursultan Nazarbayev, two years before Sapphire, including Nunn's prescient observation on Kazakhstan's importance for denuclearization. Other documents posted today include the U.S. and Kazakh exchange of letters during the Nazarbayev meeting with President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and the 1994 State Department cable memorializing the U.S.-Russian "megatons for megawatts" agreement that sent nuclear material from demobilized Soviet warheads to U.S. nuclear power plants as fuel for the next 20 years.

Project Sapphire underscored Kazakhstan's prominent role in nonproliferation efforts after the Soviet collapse. Several of the most important Soviet nuclear, chemical and biological weapons facilities were located in Kazakhstan, including the nuclear weapons testing grounds at Semipalatinsk. Determined to turn the page on this legacy, President Nazarbayev agreed to ship to Russia all the nuclear weapons remaining in Kazakhstan after the Soviet collapse, and he has repeatedly backed efforts aimed at securing nuclear materials.

Loading HEU on the C-5 transport plane. Courtesy of Andy Weber.

Today's posting is part of a series on the history of the Nunn-Lugar program prepared by the National Security Archive, building on the groundbreaking research in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009). The Project Sapphire chapter of The Dead Hand is included in today's posting.

With the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Archive's Nunn-Lugar Project has convened "critical oral history" sessions with Nunn-Lugar veterans and scholars, and excavated primary sources from U.S. and former Soviet files. (See Nunn-Lugar Revisited) The Archive seeks to document the underappreciated history of the Nunn-Lugar experience, and draw lessons for cooperative threat reduction that will address today's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons challenges.



Document 1: "Project Sapphire After Action Report," circa November 1994

This formerly secret five-page summary of the 1994 operation reveals that the uranium removed from Kazakhstan was 90 percent enriched. This would make it valuable for anyone attempting to build nuclear weapons. The report provides remarkable details on the challenges facing the Sapphire team including "too many chiefs and not enough indians," lack of secure communications, poor weather forecasts and actual weather issues, and twelve-hour workdays over almost a month repackaging the uranium for shipment. (Obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from DTRA by David E. Hoffman.)


Document 2: The official seal created for Project Sapphire by the U.S. government. (Courtesy of Andy Weber.)


Document 3: Moscow Embassy Cable, "Black Market in Soviet Nuclear Materials: Less than Meets the Eye?," January 9, 1992

This Moscow Embassy cable describes discussions with two Russian officials, whose names are redacted, about reports of nuclear smuggling from Russia and other republics. The Russian officials respond dismissively to American concerns, declaring that press reports about smuggling are unreliable. They take a different tone on the Central Asian republics, stating they would not be surprised if those republics were exporting uranium ore or semi-processed materials, though they lack the ability to produce weapons grade material or to export nuclear enrichment technology. (Obtained through FOIA from the State Department by David E. Hoffman.)


Document 4: Alma Ata Embassy Cable from Ambassador Courtney, "Defining American Interests in Kazakhstan," February 18, 1992

This cable from Ambassador William Courtney to Ed A. Hewett on the National Security Council staff outlines U.S. interests in Kazakhstan. Among the top U.S. concerns are the following: that Kazakhstan be a force in the region for moderation and for political and ethnic tolerance; that Kazakhstan allow the removal of all nuclear weapons to Russia for dismantlement; and that Kazakhstan move more in the direction of the West, for political and economic reasons, even as it inevitably strengthens ties with the Muslim world. The cable notes that Kazakhstan still possesses an arsenal larger than that of China or Britain, but does not control the weapons on its territory, and that some tension exists between those who think nuclear weapons would strengthen the international status of Kazakhstan and those who believe the weapons have no military utility. (Obtained from the Bush Presidential Library by the National Security Archive.)


Document 5: President Nazarbayev's Letter to President Bush, May 19, 1992

In this letter, President Nazarbayev memorializes in writing Kazakhstan's assurances on implementation of the START treaty, given by the Kazakh delegation at its meeting with the U.S. president and his security team that day. Kazakhstan pledges to eliminate all nuclear weapons on its territory over a period of seven years. (Obtained from the Bush Presidential Library by the National Security Archive.)


Document 6: President Bush's letter to President Nazarbayev, August 28, 1992

In this letter, President Bush congratulates Kazakhstan for being the first nation to ratify the START Treaty. Bush praises Nazarbayev's leadership in non-proliferation, and his nation's commitment to accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear state. Bush expresses his hope for a close and supportive relationship with Kazakhstan. (Obtained from the Bush Presidential Library by the National Security Archive.)


Document 7: Alma Ata Embassy Cable from Ambassador Courtney, "Codel Nunn/Lugar Meeting with Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev, November 21, 1992," November 23, 1992

In this cable, Ambassador Courtney describes the November 21, 1992, meeting of the congressional delegation headed by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar with President Nazarbayev. During their conversation, Nazarbayev asked the Senators about the transition from presidents Bush to Clinton, expressing his hope that relations between the two countries would continue on the present course. He reiterated his commitments on denuclearization and democratic reform and asked about the share of Nunn-Lugar funds that Kazakhstan could count on. Senator Nunn praised Nazarbayev's contribution and declared that "your country will be one of the most important in the world regarding denuclearization." Senator Lugar explains that $100-$200 million would be available for destruction of silos and missiles and that funds could also be available for removal and storage of warheads. Nazarbayev requested that Kazakh experts, not only Russians, be able to come the United States to receive technical training on dismantlement. (Obtained from the Bush Presidential Library by the National Security Archive.)


Document 8: Transcript of Press Conference of Senators Nunn and Lugar about their trip to Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus, November 25, 1992

In this press conference Senators Nunn and Lugar talk about their impressions from their visits to several countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, especially in the light of the ratification of the START treaty and the Nunn-Lugar program in those countries. Nunn describes security threats in the former Soviet space saying that for the first time in history "we have the combination of scientists who know how to make weapons of mass destruction and know how to make missiles, who also have a very difficult time taking care of their families." The senators outline U.S. interests in helping Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus stick to their commitments to transfer nuclear weapons and materials back to Russia and for Russia to secure its fissile materials and implement its START obligations.


Document 9: Report by General William F. Burns, head of the SSD delegation, on U.S. Efforts to Facilitate the Safe and Secure Dismantlement of Former Soviet Nuclear Weapons, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 9, 1993

In this report, General Burns outlines the results of his delegation's visits to Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus and reviews progress achieved with every country's government. On Kazakhstan, he notes the early and enthusiastic actions of the Kazakh government to ratify START and join the NPT but also points out that no specific agreements on dismantlement have been signed yet. (Courtesy of General Burns.)


Document 10: Moscow Embassy Cable, "Signing of HEU Contract," January 14, 1994

This cable reports on the meeting of the U.S. Department of Energy delegation with representatives of Minatom, the Russian atomic energy agency, led by Viktor Mikhailov. The two sides concluded a major 20-year deal calling for highly enriched Uranium (HEU) from Soviet warheads dismantled under the START treaty to be exported to the United States to be downgraded and used for civilian nuclear power reactors. The cable highlights the challenges of working with Soviet counterparts like Mikhailov. The Minatom director expressed his misgivings about the HEU deal in the meeting, suggesting that the United States was taking advantage of the existing Russian situation. "Mikhailov observed that while the Cold War may be over, the battle for world uranium markets has become a genuine hot war." The meeting also highlighted U.S. concerns about Minatom's desire to increase uranium exports, and the Russians' complaints about the cost of dismantling Ukrainian nuclear weapons. The cable cautions that Mikhailov prioritizes his own ministry's interests over national interests. Ultimately, this "megatons for megawatts" program would provide 20 years of fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants which purchased the uranium at no net cost to the U.S. taxpayer. (Obtained through FOIA from the State Department by David E. Hoffman.)


Document 11: Moscow Embassy Cable, "Diversion of Nuclear Materials: Conflicting Russian Perspectives and Sensitivities," July 14, 1994

This cable to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow expresses caution about Russian sensitivity to reports of loose nuclear materials, and describes real concerns at the time, including the troublesome situation at former Soviet nuclear weapons design laboratories, where workers have not been paid in three months. (Obtained through FOIA from the State Department by David E. Hoffman.)


Document 12: Report, "Analysis of HEU Samples from the Ulba Metallurgical Plant," by E. H. Gift, National Security Programs Office, Martin Marietta Energy Systems, Inc., Oak Ridge, Tenn. July 1994, revised 1995

This report details the results of testing at the Y-12 plant in Tennessee of the uranium samples taken by Elwood Gift and Andy Weber on their first visit to Ust-Kamenogorsk in March 1994.


Document 13: Moscow Embassy Cable, "Opening the Post Office Boxes: A Guide to Russia's Nuclear Archipelago," August 26, 1994

This unclassified report about Russia's nuclear closed cities includes the full text of Pavel Felgenhauer's article from the Russian newspaper Segodnya. It lists each of the cities by name along with a short description of their activities. In this and other ways, the cable is characteristic of the times — when the U.S. government sought any sources of information it could find on Russian nuclear issues. (Obtained through FOIA from the State Department by David E. Hoffman.)


Document 14: Transcript of press conference by Defense Secretary William Perry, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary on Project Sapphire, November 23, 1994

The three cabinet secretaries involved in the Nunn-Lugar program jointly announce that Project Sapphire has been completed. Perry says that by removing the uranium, "we have put this bomb-grade nuclear material forever out of the reach of potential black marketeers, terrorists, or a new nuclear regime."


Document 15: John A. Tirpak, "Project Sapphire," Air Force Magazine, Vol. 78, no. 8, August 1995.

This article describes the many obstacles and difficulties of the operation, including those faced by the flight crews. The first landing of a C-5 on the 8,000-foot runway in Kazakhstan was rough — "like a bucking bronco," one pilot recalled.


Document 16. William C. Potter, “The Changing Nuclear Threat: The 'Sapphire' File” (Transitions Online 17 November 1995).

This article by Dr. William Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (formerly the Monterey Institute of International Studies) was the first scholarly publication, based on extensive interviews with participants, which revealed details of Project Sapphire and wider U.S.-Kazakhstan cooperation within the framework of Nunn-Lugar programs to specialists and general public.


Document 17: David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, (New York: Doubleday, 2009) Chapter 21, "Project Sapphire."

This excerpt from David Hoffman's Pulitzer-prize winning book describes in detail how Andy Weber learned of the existence of the weapons-grade uranium in Kazakhstan and how the operation fit into the larger context of worries about fissile material security in the former Soviet Union at the time.


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