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Effort To Dismantle Nuclear Device at Semipalatinsk -- Dismantlement To Start in March

Almaty KAZAKHSTANSKAYA PRAVDA 14 Feb 95 p3

In Kurchatov there has been a regular meeting of the coordinating group, set up in line with the agreement between the Kazakh and Russian Governments on dismantling a nuclear device deployed at the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing ground before its closure.

The group has reviewed the progress of the work. According to the group, it is planned to open the final box with the nuclear explosive device during the first 10 days of March. By that time specialists from the Russian Federal nuclear center will have arrived in Kurchatov. They are to make the final decision on the fate of the nuclear explosive device.

From an Official Report

The nuclear device was placed in mine No.108 almost 4 years ago in May 1991. With the help of the charge -- small by atomic standards, with a power of 0.3-0.4 kilotons -- it was proposed to test new types of weapons and military equipment for stability under the destructive effects of an atomic explosion, specifically the influence of super-destructive X-ray radiation. The nuclear charge was placed in one end of the mine, the fuse was covered with heavy concrete with a channel for radiation outlet, and new types of weapons and testing equipment were put in the mine. The inlet openings were bricked up, so that the reactive gas which is formed during the explosion should explode upward. The mine goes 600 meters deep into the mountain; on top of it there is a granite roof 130 meters thick. This guaranteed a reserve of stability many times over.

No command ever came to explode the nuclear device.... [passage omitted: USSR collapsed, the Semipalatinsk testing ground was closed down, ideas were sought as to what to do with the buried nuclear device]

After a long delay a coordinating group was established. This included representatives of the Russian Atomic Ministry, the Federal Nuclear Center, the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan, the State Atomic Inspectorate of Russia, and the interior, Foreign, and Defense Ministries of both states. The group of experts is led by Aleksandr Shcherbina, a 57 year old doctor of technical sciences, a representative of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center. His team consists of the cream of Russia's military science who have experience of dozens of nuclear explosions carried out at the Novaya Zemlya and Semipalatinsk test ranges.

[passage omitted: correspondent only happened upon the latest meeting by chance and found members of the group very pleasant] Group leader Aleksandr Shcherbina spoke to me, at the same time specifying that this was not an official interview, but only a private conversation.

"I request you to specifically stress," he said, "that there is not an atomic bomb in mine 108, as some corrrespondents write, but a nuclear explosive device. Nuclear ammunition goes through many cycles: assembling, dismantling, examining, reexamining -- it is meant to be stored for a long time. But this is something completely different.

"We had been moving toward this experiment for almost 20 years. The whole system of protective constructions were made in order to fully halt and localize the products of the explosion. The fact that a similar test was carried out in mine 132B before this comforts us to some degree. That is why we so bravely and confidently moved toward the repeat experiment. We did not succeed...."

From further conversations with the experts, it is clear that both the Americans and we have had two or three cases when the explosives did not work for some reason and had to be extracted from the mine. True, this had been done immediately afterward. The present case is a unique one. World practice knows no examples when a nuclear charge has remained such a long time outside a nuclear depository, where there is the necessary control over the condition of the materials. That is why nobody can give a solid guarantee as to how the device will behave after such a long period of storage in the mine.

As for the problems connected with the extraction of the charge, then there are enough of them. Even simple problems have to be solved at government level. It was with great difficulty that experienced tunnellers were found. When the protection wall of the gantry was opened in order to take out the technical and physical devices, it turned out that the mine was full of water. Fortunately, the pressurized passage saved it from being totally flooded. In many places timbering was rotten and the rocks crumbled. After repair we were ready to start the main work but the mine again filled with water because of torrential rain. After that there was a forced lull because of financial difficulties. The money allotted by the Russian Nuclear Ministry and transferred to the accounts of a small enterprise was lost for a long time in the banking jungle. (By the way, all the expenditure for extracting the charge is paid by the Russian side. They are put at no less than 1.5 billion rubles)

Now the most difficult stage has begun. The task of the tunnellers is to go through the cliff rocks around the mine to get to the box with the charge from the far end of the mine. There is 30 meters to go. The work is being done with every precaution. In order to lessen the effects on the charge, small explosives are placed in blast holes. The tunnelling speed is 90 centimeters per shift. Radiation control is implemented in the mine and every important moment is shot by video. And what is there after the last 30 meters? A concrete wall, which has to be drilled with a pneumatic drill -- you see, the lads in Degelen have good nerves!

Who will enter the charge cell first? Most probably it will not be one person, but three or four people, led by the chief designer, Academician Boris Litvinov. They will be the first to feel the charge with their hands, to resolve the main task: to start dismantling the nuclear device, if its condition permits, or to destroy it in the mine with the help of an ordinary explosive. Who is to take upon himself such responsibility? The ideal version, the Kazakhstan side believes, would be to dismantle the nuclear device and transport it outside the republic. Should there be the smallest doubt about the safety of dismantling it, Russia will not put people's lives at risk; the charge will be exploded, such is the firm opinion of the second side.

A chain reaction from this is completely ruled out. Of course, everything will be done so that nuclear particles do not go upward.

When you read these lines, think just for a minute: Right now, most dangerous work is being done behind a dual defense system ring in the mountains of Degelen. So, evidently, our fate was written: first create difficulties, and then bravely overcome them.