» This Story:Read +|Watch +|Talk +| Comments

Half a Ton of Uranium -- and a Long Flight

Andy Weber is shown at the metal plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, in 1994 during Project Sapphire.
Andy Weber is shown at the metal plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, in 1994 during Project Sapphire. (Courtesy Of Andy Weber)
  Enlarge Photo    
Discussion Policy
Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

On a snowy day in December 1993, just months after Andy Weber began his diplomatic job at the U.S. Embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan, he met with a tall, bullet-headed man he knew only as Col. Korbator.

This Story
View All Items in This Story
View Only Top Items in This Story

"Andy, let's take a walk," the colonel said. As they strolled through a dim apartment courtyard, Korbator handed Weber a piece of paper. Weber unfolded it. On the paper was written:

U235

90 percent

600 kilos

Weber did the calculation: 1,322 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to make about 24 nuclear bombs. He closed the note, put it in his pocket and thanked the colonel. After several months of patient cultivation of his contacts, Weber finally had the answer he had been seeking.

The piece of paper was a glimpse into what had become the most urgent proliferation crisis to follow the collapse of the Soviet Union: the discovery of tons of nuclear materials left behind by the Cold War arms race, much of it unguarded and unaccounted for.

This is the story of Project Sapphire, the code name for an early pioneering mission to secure a portion of those nuclear materials before they could fall into the wrong hands. New documents and interviews provide the fullest account yet of this covert operation to remove the dangerous uranium from Kazakhstan and fly it to the United States. When it was over, the U.S. government paid Kazakhstan about $27 million for the cache.

Efforts to lock up nuclear materials scattered around the globe are still underway. This week, at the U.N. Security Council, President Obama will chair a high-level meeting on the continuing dangers of proliferation.

Weber first learned of the uranium in Kazakhstan during the summer of 1993, when Vitaly Mette, a former Soviet navy submarine commander, discreetly set up a meeting by leaving a message for Weber with his handyman and car mechanic. Mette, who wore a leather jacket and kept his thick hair combed back from his angular face, told Weber that he wanted to sell uranium to the United States. But he was vague about the uranium's enrichment level. The uranium was stored at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, an enormous industrial complex that fabricated reactor fuel in the grimy city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, in Kazakhstan's northeast. Mette was the director.

To build trust with Mette, Weber went hunting with him in the Altai Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan, near the borders of Russia and China. Weber enjoyed the banya steam baths, chewed on smoked pork fat and shivered in the early-morning cold with Mette and other Russians.

At the end of the trip, Mette volunteered to show Weber the plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk. "If it is not a secret," Weber asked Mette gently as they drove around the gargantuan fenced-off factory, "do you have any highly enriched uranium?"


CONTINUED     1              >


» This Story:Read +|Watch +|Talk +| Comments

More Asia Coverage

Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy - China News

The latest on China from our partners at FP magazine.

facebook

Connect Online

Share and comment on Post world news on Facebook and Twitter.

North Korean Prison Camps

North Korean Prison Camps

Interactive map of five major prison camps in the country.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company