Merry Christmas, Kazakhstan

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Chet Nagle
Former CIA Agent
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      Chet Nagle

      Naval Academy graduate and Cold War carrier pilot, Chet Nagle flew in the Cuban Missile Crisis. After a stint as a navy research officer, he joined International Security Affairs as a Pentagon civilian -- then came defense and intelligence work, life abroad for 12 years as an agent for the CIA, and extensive time in Iran, Oman, and many other countries. Along the way, he graduated from the Georgetown University Law School and was the founding publisher of a geo-political magazine, The Journal of Defense & Diplomacy, read in over 20 countries and with a circulation of 26,000. At the end of his work in the Middle East, he was awarded the Order of Oman in that allied nation’s victory over communist Yemen; now, he writes and consults. He and his wife Dorothy live in Virginia.

There is a country big enough to swallow the territories of Texas and France five times over. It is the ninth-largest nation in the world, bigger than Western Europe. Lazy journalists and the liberal media have colored what Westerners know about Kazakhstan, but this holiday season the world owes that young nation a huge debt of gratitude. Kazakhstan has protected us from a nuclear nightmare.

Kazakhstan became an independent country on December 16, 1991, the last Soviet republic to do so. Its communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, became president and established his rule over the new government. His firm leadership immediately drew universal criticism for everything from suppression of the media to human rights violations and so, amazingly, the vast country slowly disappeared from the world stage. Now it is back.

Last week there was a well-attended gathering at Washington’s Metropolitan Club. Sponsored by the Kazakh ambassador, Erlan Idrissov, it featured talks and books by two British authors: Jonathan Aiken, “Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan,” and Christopher Robbins, “Apples are from Kazakhstan.” Presentations were informative and, surprisingly, quite entertaining. Food was predictably delicious. But the short concluding discussion led by Ambassador Idrissov was electrifying. His comments were based on a secret operation concluded in early November that involved tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

Stalin made Kazakhstan the toxic dump of his evil empire. After forcibly deporting many Russian ethnic groups to the distant province, Moscow built chemical and biological weapons factories there too. Soviet nuclear tests above and below ground added to the deadly stew, making vast tracts of Kazakhstan dangerous to this day. Plus, in 1973, the communists began operating a nuclear reactor near the Caspian Sea city of Shevchenko, now called Aktau, that supplied the city with electricity, steam, and potable water. It also produced plutonium for Russian nuclear warheads.

Besides a broken economy, diverse ethnic groups with multiple languages, and factories producing war toxins, President Nazarbayev inherited over one hundred SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 1,410 nuclear warheads. With some financial assistance from the United States, the warheads were sent back to Russia, the missiles destroyed, and the toxin factories shut down. But what happened to the stockpiles of enriched uranium and plutonium?

The heart of a nuclear weapon can be as little as 15 pounds of plutonium, a sphere that would easily fit in the hollow of your palm. As little as 10 pounds would be enough for a bomb if it were of very high quality. In 1991, President Nazarbayev’s new government inherited the Aktau stockpile of a ton of highly enriched uranium and over three tons of “ivory plutonium,” the very highest grade of that radioactive element. In 1994 a secret program run by Kazakhstan and the Department of Energy, codenamed “Sapphire,” moved the weapons-grade uranium to the United States. But what about the huge amount of plutonium?

It was moved too. By rail and highway, three tons of plutonium was sent from unsecure storage at the Aktau plant to a secret and highly guarded facility somewhere in northeastern Kazakhstan. It took a year to complete shipments over 1,500 miles of rural roads and railroad tracks in secrecy and safety. The last delivery to secure storage was made on November 15. Some observers say as much as 100 tons of radioactive material was moved from the Caspian to that new site. Whatever the actual amount, Ambassador Idrissov assured us that it represents enough nuclear material to make 775 atomic bombs!

  • Liberty for All

    And not one Borat joke. Well done, DC readers. (The dead goat screamed out to me, but I resisted.)

  • 2old4this

    I suspect that many people are like me with only faint knowledge of Kazakhstan, limited and distant interest, and could care less. That has changed for me having read Nagle’s fine paper and now enjoying his depth of research and analysis. I am really surprised Iran had not slipped across the sea and militarily taken what they wanted in plutonium when the taking might have been easy. Perhaps this was done, or at least attempted, and has yet to be exposed. Count on Chet Nagle to keep us informed on such things. JM

  • clw

    What a fascinating article! I have a relative working one month on, one month off, in Kazakhstan right now. They have been extraordinarily welcoming to him.

    He says their favorite sport… which is on ESPN ASIA every night, involves wrestling a headless dead goat on horseback and throwing it into a pit to score. (Seriously). It’s called “kokpar”! (It’s on YouTube).

    This article gives me even MORE insight into this emerging, yet incredibly ancient (historically speaking), country. Nice to know more of its’ interesting history.

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