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Operation Sapphire: Nuclear Diplomacy in Kazakhstan

Working with nuclear materials is, by its very nature, volatile. Carrying out diplomacy over nuclear materials is even more so. The 1990s posed a particularly fragile moment as the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving nuclear successor states in its wake. In particular, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan emerged onto the global scene equipped with weapons and the infrastructure to produce more nuclear devices.

Billet of Highly Enriched Uranium | Wikimedia Commons
Billet of Highly Enriched Uranium | Wikimedia Commons

The question for diplomacy (amidst the familiar pressures and excitement of establishing relationships with newly independent, nascent states) was how to steer the moments that would follow—a world where the number of nuclear-armed states had suddenly multiplied. Without carefully proceeding, the moment could turn sour, leading to further proliferation and heightened risk.

For over forty years, the Soviet Union and the United States had been locked in a nuclear escalation in the Cold War, generating the vast majority of the world’s supply of nuclear weapons and warheads. In the Soviet Union, this peaked at a stockpile of approximately 68,000 warheads just a year before its fall. After December 26, 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR, those warheads were now split between the resulting new republics it left in its wake.

For Janet Bogue, a move to Kazakhstan as a Foreign Service officer in 1994, less than three years after the fall of the Soviet Union, meant an entrée into careful negotiations around the new Republic’s nuclear stockpile. Luckily for Bogue, Kazakhstan proved flexible, eager to de-arm and to negotiate with the United States. In this particular case, the obstacle proved to be the United States itself, much to the consternation of the Foreign Service officers posted in Almaty.

The ensuing proceedings would be termed “Operation Sapphire,” or “Project Sapphire,” a highly classified, delicate transfer of fifty kilograms of highly enriched uranium. In this Moment, career diplomat Janet Bogue details the events of the mission that marked a high point of her career in Central Asia from the perspective of the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan.

Janet Bogue’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on May 18, 2007.

Read Janet Bogue’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Miranda Allegar

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Excerpts:

“Do you mind if I tell you a secret?”

Nuclear Successors:
As I think I mentioned last time, Kazakhstan was one of the four successor nuclear states: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, all had nuclear weapons, nuclear facilities.

Kazakhstan made the decision, I think a very wise one, to get rid of its weapons. I think two things: one was the legacy of all of the health and environmental damage and the bitterness left behind. The other was, as you can see when you look on a map, they lived in a lousy neighborhood. There was going to be a lot of pressure there to sell it. It was going to be difficult for them to protect it. They decided they would do much better to get rid of it.

The project we did, destroying the missiles. We also had huge projects to increase both safety in the sense of the way these things, nuclear materials, were handled. The Soviets did this with a kind of casualness that they handled a lot of safety issues. Also security. I was told by people from the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico who had come out that there would be one rusty padlock to guard whole supplies of nuclear materials.

Kazakhstan had also been a producer of biological weapons and there were biological weapons labs that needed to be dismantled as well.

Our main projects included, for instance, we cut up the missiles. We also imploded the test tunnels. When they went from aboveground to underground testing, they dug what are essentially mine shafts in order to do underground testing. Once one is used, it collapses and it is unusable again. It is also heavily radiated. It is full. They still have lots of them. They were not going to pursue a nuclear program themselves; they were starting to get inquiries from some interesting characters in the neighborhood about renting their test tunnels.

So they asked us to destroy them. We had teams come over from the United States, I always call them the Dayglyn Mountain Boys, because the test tunnel was at a place called Dayglyn Mountain. The fellows who came over were from Tennessee and they were all good old southern boys with tremendous accents, but they were experts in imploding tunnels and sealing them so they could not be used. The Dayglyn Mountain Boys went out there and imploded the test tunnels. We did this at our expense. The U.S. government paid for all that.

Our most terrific achievement in this was that one day—and one of the things I love about this story is that diplomacy really can work—the science minister was skiing with a colleague of mine, and said to him at the end of day, “Do you mind if I tell you a secret?”

The fellow said, “Well, no. Go ahead.”

He said, “Well, we have around 500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium which could be made very easily into warheads. We would like to get rid of it. We would like you to have it. We would like you to box it up and take it away. And we would like this all done quietly so that nobody grabs it in the meantime, or starts bidding for it.”

“The things we do for our country.”

           
Aerial view of the airfield at Incirlik Air Base (1987), Master Sergeant Patrick Nugent | Wikimedia Commons
Aerial view of the airfield at Incirlik Air Base (1987), Master Sergeant Patrick Nugent | Wikimedia Commons

Top Secret:
The U.S. government at first wanted nothing to do with it. We could not get anyone interested. Although that didn’t stop all of them taking credit once it happened. Finally, the U.S. government agreed that we could move this 500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan to safe storage in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was a highly secret project called “Operation Sapphire.” The reason it was so secret is that once the stuff, the uranium, is bundled up in a safe way, this is the best time for the bad guys to take it because it is safe for them to grab. There had already been cases in the former Soviet Union of someone walking out of a facility with a briefcase full of unprotected things and died three days later in a hotel room of radiation poisoning.

This was going to be the most handy possible arrangement. First the U.S. government said, “It can’t be highly enriched uranium.” So the embassy actually went and took samples of it and sent them back. Sure enough, it was. Finally, reluctantly, the U.S. government said, “We negotiated a deal in which essentially we would purchase it mostly for environmental, health remediation efforts in the areas affected by that, and safety and security work with your facilities.”

The whole project was well over a year, including bringing over a whole crew of fellows from Oak Ridge, who lived up at the site while they did what they had to do to package up the uranium in what almost look like little beer kegs. They are lead and make it possible for you to move it in a safe way. Then flying in C-5s, huge cargo aircraft, one of which broke down. They were leaving from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and one of them broke down. It was snowing that day. The convoy going to the airport had heavy security. One of the cars ran off the road, fortunately not one of the ones with material on it. To make a long story short, it was loaded onto the aircraft and then they flew straight to the States with midair refueling because of the problems landing. You will remember Spain and the atomic weapon that got away.

Q: I talked to Ken Towall who had to go out and swim with the ambassador because we dropped a hydrogen bomb off a Spanish beach. I think it was fall and the water was pretty cold. He had to get out there and swim, just to show that it was okay.

The things we do for our country.

So they had to refuel frequently in midair. They landed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The material was transferred onto a truck convoy, highly protected, and taken straight to Tennessee and put deep underground. Once that was announced Secretary [of State] Christopher, Secretary Perry of the Defense Department, and Secretary O’Leary of the Energy Department, all did a press conference.

It was very late at night already in Kazakhstan, but we all converged on a colleague’s house and brought some vile, sweet Kyrgyz champagne from the champagne factory there. It really was one of those moments in your career when you felt like, I actually did a concrete thing that made the world safer. Five hundred kilograms of highly enriched bomb-grade uranium is stuck away where whoever in this neighborhood, or whatever rogue elements, cannot get at it. That was a wonderful thing.

“. . . When all of it ends up in the wrong hands, it is going to look really bad.”

Risk Management:
Q: You were saying that there was reluctance on the part of the government. What did you do? Send off a cable saying, “Here we are. Come and get it.” What happened?

I think the U.S. government just thought this would be expensive, and why can’t they take care of it themselves? We don’t want to get involved with this. We have enough problems with nuclear materials in our own country. I think our ambassador then, Bill Courtney, I want to give him a lot of credit for being very persuasive on this issue in the non-proliferation context. One of the things we all did when we were in Washington at various times while this was going on, was to just haul out a map and say, “Look. Look at the neighborhood. Iran. Afghanistan. Pakistan. Iraq. All these folks in the neighborhood who have interest in these kinds of weapons and here it is made for them. They don’t have to figure out how to make it themselves.”

“. . . So, in the end, you do what you always do to get Washington. You say, “This is going to look really bad in the Washington Post. All this material, because we said we wouldn’t take it, when all of it ends up in the wrong hands, it is going to look really bad.”

Anyway, we did it. It was a magnificent success. We all just kind of sat with our champagne on the floor, looking at the press conference on television, and feeling like something we had done had really made a difference. Again, it was old-fashioned human diplomacy. It was the fact that one of our guys was out skiing with the Science Minister, because they had developed a very friendly relationship and they liked to ski together. The Science Minister had developed enough confidence over time that he felt he could pose this question on behalf of his government. It was not something they wanted to present in a formal way. They wanted to get the agreement quietly and keep it all under wraps.

Q: And you were watching the heads of the departments in the States who originally didn’t want to have anything to do with it?

And I have to say the only one who didn’t try to claim full credit was Warren Christopher, a very modest man. Vice President Gore, Secretary Perry, and Secretary O’Leary were all patting themselves on the back. That’s what happens in politics. It is not anything unusual. I don’t mean to be criticizing them personally, because in fact, when they did agree, they didn’t stint in terms of providing support for the project.

. . . We really had a critical role to play. Operation Sapphire, with the removal of the highly enriched uranium, was such a great example. It was all diplomacy in action, and it showed the work and value of the human contacts that were built up over time.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in History, University of Puget Sound 1971–1975
MA in European History, University of Oregon 1977–1980
Joined the Foreign Service 1982
Belgrade, Serbia—Political Officer 1985–1987
Islamabad, Pakistan—Political Officer 1990–1992
Almaty, Kazakhstan—Chief of Political, Economic, & Science Section; DCM 1994–1997
Washington, D.C.—Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeastern Europe 2001–2003