Half a Ton of Uranium -- and a Long Flight
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.
"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:
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?"