Good Luck Trying to Get People to Care About Nuclear Security

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Here’s an excerpt from a White House briefing at the Nuclear Security Summit. I found the description by NSC spokesman Ben Rhodes of a nuclear excavation program in Kazakhstan are really interesting, but feel free to skim down to the first press question that follows. You’d think preventing nuclear terrorism–the core subject of the entire summit–would be a hot media topic, but no one at the briefing asked about it:

MR. RHODES:  I’ll just say a few words here about the announcement that the President made with his Kazak and Russian counterparts on Degelen Mountain.  I will say that we have with us also one of the Department of Defense officials who’s participated in this project, who’s going to be available for those of you who want to have additional information, color and context for this.

I think what you’ll note by being here at the summit is how much focus is put on some of the former Soviet Union in terms of addressing the vast amounts of nuclear materials that existed in different Soviet republics, and that posed a risk over the course of the last few decades.  And this is an example of this.

The announcement that was made by the three Presidents revealed a longstanding project that was aimed at eliminating the remnants of past nuclear testing activities within the territory of the former Semipalatinsk — and I’m going to call this, STS going forward — test site to bring it to a safe and secure state.  And again, this project has been kept secret until our discussion of it today.  And I think you heard the Kazak President himself talk about the breadth of this site comparable to the most utilized nuclear test sites here in the United States.

What STS is, is an area in eastern Kazakhstan.  It’s 18,000 square kilometers, so five times the size of our Nevada test site and almost the size of New Jersey.  And the Soviet Union conducted 50 years of nuclear testing at this test site, including hundreds of tests and experiments, often in underground tunnels.

So in the 1990s, the United States, through our Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, partnered with Kazakhstan to try to begin to eliminate the legacy of Soviet nuclear test infrastructure.  This project was completed as a first step in 2000, which involves sealing a number of tunnels at this site.  And the intent of the work was to ensure that the tunnels could never again be used for the testing of nuclear weapons.

However, in the years that followed, there was some scavenger activity that became apparent at the site that people were looking for things ranging from scrap metal to other materials.  And this, coupled with our focus on nuclear terrorism, led to the launch of this trilateral effort, again, in I think roughly 2004, so that there couldn’t be the theft of the residual nuclear material at the site.  And you had literally former Soviet and U.S. weapon scientists working together, and they concluded that more than a dozen nuclear weapons’ worth of nuclear material was still in these tunnels.

And so over the course of this project we decided together to reopen over 40 test tunnels and take measures to secure and eliminate the residual nuclear material together.  So Kazakhstani work crews used U.S.-provided equipment to access the suspected areas based on Russian data to get at the material of concern.  So you have the Kazaks in the lead, you’ve got U.S. equipment, and you’ve got the Russians who has information about the materials.  So essentially, this involved a lot of very thorough work over the course of the last several years.

As the President said, this is a type of project that demonstrates how three different countries can work together to eliminate a nuclear threat.  That work, of course, was accelerated and prioritized by the President in conjunction with the last Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.  And we were able to reach the goal of being able to announce today that we’re wrapping up the project.

So, again, I think we have with us here, for those are interested, someone who can speak at greater length about the context for this, some of the color involved in how we did this. But I think what it highlights is — literally, if you think about having several nuclear weapons’ worth of materials in Kazakhstan, in a region where we know there are terrorist groups operating who are seeking this type of material, who are seeking to steal it, buy it from somebody, that’s an intolerable risk, frankly, to global security.  So by working cooperatively with nations like Russia and Kazakhstan, we’re able to secure these materials, and just an example, as with Shawn’s, of the type of cooperation we’re fostering at this summit.

With that, I’m happy to take questions on this, the summit, or anything else related to the trip.

Q    Does the President feel that all the work all the work that you’ve just discussed has been sort of hijacked by the open mic issue from yesterday?  And why did you guys want to bring that around again today with his comments?  I mean, do you risk at this point that he looks weak at home by having it dominate this summit so much?

Oh, never mind…

(Read the full briefing and the subsequent questions here.)

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