From Project Sapphire to Today

Posted: February 7, 2013 - 6:45pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 9, Issue 2 | 2013

At the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, President Barack Obama set forth a large-scale effort to aggressively secure the world's vulnerable nuclear material. This effort to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism was reinforced at the 2012 summit with continued support for the National Nuclear Security Administration's Global Threat Reduction Initiative. But nearly two decades earlier, Y‑12 was quietly conducting missions to secure materials from foreign countries with proliferation concerns.

In 1994 more than a thousand containers of nuclear material sat in metal racks on the floor in a cold, dilapidated warehouse at the end of a railroad spur in Kazakhstan. The canisters were protected only by wooden doors with padlocks and bars on windows that looked out at the barren trees and chain-link fence surrounding the area.

The all-but-forgotten materials were from former Soviet Union nuclear submarine fuel abandoned at the close of the Cold War. Through an accord, the U.S. acquired the materials from Kazakhstan to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. Y-12 got the call to secure the vulnerable materials, which included weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. After receiving confirmation of the types of materials present in Kazakhstan and details about their storage, a Y-12–led team — including experts in uranium operations, health physics, criticality safety, industrial hygiene, security and nuclear packaging — began planning a material recovery mission. The secret mission (code name: Project Sapphire) would be the first of its kind.

The team prepared for months at Y-12, conducting dry runs, testing equipment and practicing procedures. “Once we received the directive from President Clinton to proceed, we got money out of the bank and were on the plane within six hours,” said the enriched uranium operations supervisor. None of the 31 team members' families knew where the group was going or how long they'd be gone.

For seven weeks, the team worked with Kazakh plant workers, with great help from Russian-language interpreters, to track containers and repackage materials. The Project Sapphire team leader recalled, “I worked closely with the Russian material control and accountability expert at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant and our Department of Defense interpreters to understand what the materials were, where they came from and how they were made. We also needed to address some of the problems and issues related to the different forms of materials we had never worked with before.”

For this pioneering mission, the team operated out of a white utility trailer — essentially a horse trailer — which was customized at Y-12 with a few desks, a place to set up communication equipment and a 60-kilowatt generator. The team would also need the expertise of their colleagues back at Y-12. “We had quite an effort from the plant while the team was deployed,” said a senior criticality safety engineer. “A great deal of research and many calculations were done with the information we sent every day since we did not have much information about these forms of materials and not all of the information we had was complete or correct.”

Discreetly, the team transmitted when they would be ready to transfer the nearly 600 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, “while being very careful not to tip off anyone to the exact time when transport would take place,” said Senior Nuclear Engineer David Wall, NNSA Production Office.

To complicate the situation, the airport was small and had no radar system. After many trips had been aborted because of bad weather, the C-5 planes finally arrived to retrieve the team and the materials. The weather, however, continued to be a problem. “The runway and the planes were iced over,” the team leader said. “We were afraid we'd get stuck there all winter.” After working 12 to 14 hours for six, sometimes seven, days a week since the beginning of October 1994, the team finally made it home the day before Thanksgiving. Mission accomplished.

Four years later, in 1998, David Wall traveled to Georgia — a country that had recently experienced a civil war and a presidential assassination attempt — to survey the situation at the Georgian Institute of Physics' nuclear research reactor.

“My flight had been delayed, so I got to Tbilisi at 3 a.m. on a dark and stormy night. All the power was out in the city. I was supposed to meet someone from the American Embassy; but once I got there, the only people in the dark airport were two Georgians holding a sign with my name on it,” Wall recalled. “They spoke very little English, but I did understand that my hotel reservation had been cancelled and arrangements had been made for me to stay in a guest house about an hour away.

“After we drove from the blackened city, we passed through the iron gate in the front of the guest house; the driver went to talk to a man through a window in the wooden door, and I thought to myself, 'This is how spy novels begin, and this is when people disappear.'”

But Wall didn't disappear. Instead, his trip put Project Olympus, also known as Operation Auburn Endeavor, in motion. The project consisted of removing fuel from the Georgian research reactor. Like many throughout the former Soviet Union, this reactor had been shut down for a number of years but still housed spent fuel assemblies made of highly enriched uranium, along with fresh fuel rods.

Similar to the conditions in Kazakhstan, the site was mostly abandoned. The institute's front gate was sprinkled with bullet holes, and much of the outlying area was at a standstill.

The perfect removal plan required 100-plus days, but federal officials were uneasy about Georgia's political climate, so the mission had to be carried out quicker. After survey teams conducted evaluations and after a few longer site visits, the Y-12–led packaging team did the job in 10 days. “This was another precedent-setting mission for the U.S. and for Y-12,” said a former team leader. Once again, Y-12 experts completed a complex, sensitive operation to secure vulnerable nuclear materials — materials that terrorists could have used to make a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb.

To help prevent an adversary from getting enough highly enriched uranium to make a crude nuclear bomb, NNSA's Global Threat Reduction Initiative continues to identify and secure vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world. Established in 2004, GTRI has effectively expanded and accelerated its threat reduction efforts with the help of Y-12. Supporting GTRI work, Y-12 has recovered materials from places such as Argentina, South Korea and, most recently, Chile and Mexico.

“Our missions and the success we have had go back to Sapphire and Olympus and methodologies that were established then,” said GTRI Program Manager Trent Andes. That experience was particularly useful when a 2010 mission in Chile, known as Operation Golden Llama, was interrupted by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake. Fortunately, the fresh material destined for Y-12 had already been packaged, and the on-site NNSA team was able to reroute the transportation convoy.

In 2012 Y-12 engaged in a recovery mission in Mexico. “Procedures were developed and validated in advance, everyone was trained on what we needed to do, and it worked really well,” said the project manager for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Global Security Programs. Front-end plans and contingency plans are important to each mission. In addition, Y-12 now uses its in-house–developed shipping container, the ES-3100, which aids in readiness for operations.

When the first operations took place in the 1990s, Y-12 had no formal program and no formal budget; the missions were quick responses to immediate threats. “Through the success of those operations and recognition by our government, we have been fortunate to see formal programs established through the Department of Energy, NNSA, the Department of Defense and the Department of State,” the Project Sapphire team leader said. “When missions are necessary to retrieve vulnerable materials that are a risk to us nationally and to many other countries, we can safely say there is a capability within the U.S. to do this.”