U.S. team worked secretly to get uranium to safety

Published Nov. 24, 1994|Updated Oct. 8, 2005

Night and day in a remote site in central Asia, a 36-year-old U.S. nuclear engineer and 30 other experts labored six weeks in secrecy over a huge cache of bomb-grade uranium. Their goal: Secure the material out of the reach of terrorists by spiriting it to America.

By Wednesday, top-secret Project Sapphire was complete _ 1,400 stainless steel canisters filled with nearly a half-ton of nuclear material had been flown by Air Force C-5 cargo planes from the outer reaches of Kazakhstan to a storage site in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

"One more threat of nuclear terrorism and proliferation has been removed from the world," President Clinton said.

"It was a very hard, but a very rewarding job and we're glad to be back home," said Alex Reidy, smiling after the mission was disclosed at a Pentagon news conference. "With some very good planning, it all went very smoothly."

The slim, bespectacled father of two from Tennessee hardly looks like the central character in a secret mission to thwart international bad guys. But top officials heaped praise on him for organizing what would have been a "Mission Impossible" during Cold War days.

Reidy is an arms control analyst for a branch of Martin Marietta that runs the Energy Department's storage facility at Oak Ridge. He was trained as a nuclear engineer at the University of Illinois.

"It does not take a great deal of sophistication to work with some of this material," he said, "so here was a real significant proliferation threat."

After Clinton gave the go-ahead for the operation Oct. 7, Reidy moved his team of volunteers to Kazakhstan, where they built several small buildings to process the nuclear material for transport.

"We went to great lengths to try to protect our team," building complex "glove boxes" with air filtration systems in which to do the work, Reidy said. They brought their own heaters, generators and supplies.

Reidy's team was composed of nuclear scientists and technicians, all civilians working for the Energy Department, as well as four Pentagon translators.

"It was a difficult working situation," Reidy said, pointing out that many on his team "had never been out of United States before, and suddenly they redeployed to the other side of world."

From Oct. 9 to mid-November they worked 12- to 14-hour days, six days a week, Reidy said, diluting 2.3 metric tons of material.

"We'd be transported in by bus before dawn, and back again at night, almost always" under cover of darkness, attempting to attract little attention, he said.

The team members were well treated by those locals they did meet, and they even managed to use what little spare time they had to collect clothing, supplies and $1,800 for two orphanages in the region, Reidy said.

A large share of the former Soviet Union's nuclear testing took place in Kazakhstan. The newly independent state inherited the highly enriched uranium when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

One Pentagon official described the original material as "almost pure U-235" uranium, and Defense Secretary William Perry said much of it could have been used to build nuclear bombs.

Kazakhstan has pledged to give up all its inherited nuclear weapons and quietly asked the United States for help earlier this year in removing the material from the plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk.

When the U.S. Air Force C-5 cargo plane flew to Kazakhstan to pick up the material earlier this month, it brought 40,000 pounds of food and other humanitarian aid, Perry said.

A senior Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said states outside the former Soviet Union are "really shopping for" such material, and a highly sophisticated operator could have used it to build between two dozen and three dozen bombs.

U.S. officials said they could not immediately estimate the cost of taking over the material. Perry said the military airlift cost alone was about $3-million.

Details of nuclear project

Elements of the U.S.-Kazakhstan operation:

The effort, code-named Project Sapphire, was authorized Oct. 7 by President Clinton to ensure that about 1,320 pounds of highly enriched uranium in Kazakhstan be moved to a safer U.S. location.

The material was enough to make about two dozen nuclear weapons, according to the White House. The Energy Department intends to have it processed into a less highly enriched form for use as a commercial nuclear fuel.

The material was flown to Dover Air Force Base, Del., earlier this month and then shipped overland to Oak Ridge, Tenn., the site of a major Energy Department nuclear facility.

The Pentagon said it knew of no specific threat by a terrorist or other group to snatch the material from Kazakhstan, but that the transfer averted any future threat. It said Kazakhstan asked for U.S. help because of the financial burden of maintaining adequate security at the storage site.

A team of 31 U.S. nuclear specialists spent a month in Kazakhstan secretly preparing the material for shipment.

_ Associated Press