The Bombs That Never Went Off

The fall of the Soviet Union left behind a grim legacy of nuclear danger. After 30 years, the last weapons-grade uranium has been eliminated.

A Russian ballistic submarine in 1996.
Todd P. Cichonowicz / U.S. NAVY / Military Collection / Alamy

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

You were probably busy with other things in September 2020.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. The raging COVID-19 pandemic had erupted at the White House. President Donald Trump had debated Joe Biden.

So you might have missed a news item from Kazakhstan: the elimination of the last weapons-grade uranium in that country. In a program jointly operated with the United States, Kazakh scientists ground 2.9 kilograms of highly enriched uranium into a fine powder. They then mixed that powder with enough low-enriched uranium powder to render the whole batch useless for bomb-making. And with that operation, Kazakhstan’s career as a nuclear state came to an end.

Your taxes covered the cost of much of that transition. The crack-up of the Soviet Union left behind a grim legacy of nuclear danger. The former Soviet arsenal was shared among four post-Soviet successor states: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Even before the Soviet collapse, the security of the arsenal had been poor by U.S. standards, for reasons explained by David Hoffman in his Pulitzer Prize–winning history of the Soviet nuclear aftermath, The Dead Hand:

In Soviet times, the nuclear security system depended upon closed fences, closed borders, a closed society, as well as the surveillance and intimidation of everyone by the secret police … People were under stricter control than the fissile materials. When the material was weighed or moved, it was tracked in handwritten entries in ledger books. If material was lost, it was just left off the books, no one wanted to get in trouble for it. And factories would often deliberately keep some nuclear materials off the books, to make up for unforeseen shortfalls.

When the surveillance and intimidation stopped, much of that off-the-books material was stashed in tumbledown buildings sealed by padlocks that could be snipped by ordinary bolt cutters. The scientists and technicians who knew how to access the material—or knew how to make more of it—saw their incomes collapse to a few dollars a month.

Destruction of Soviet nuclear bombs.
The destruction of a Soviet-era nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan in 2000. (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters)

A terrifying opportunity gaped open for rogue states and terrorists. The end of the Cold War had, perversely, heightened the risk that a Soviet-made bomb might be used against an American target.

That risk summoned an inspired response by the U.S. government and its new post-Soviet partners. Russia, and only Russia, would remain a nuclear-weapons state. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine would repudiate their nuclear inheritance, and also their biological and chemical weapons. The United States would absorb the costs—and support scientists who would otherwise lose their employment.

The law that funded the build-down was formally called the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991. It is universally known by the names of its two Senate sponsors, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. Nunn-Lugar defrayed the costs of safely decommissioning thousands of ex-Soviet nuclear weapons. It paid to destroy terrifying biologic agents. And it also underwrote less spectacular needs. Here’s a recollection from the memoir of William Perry, secretary of defense during President Bill Clinton’s first term:

Ukrainian (and Russian) law mandated that officers discharged from military service be provided housing, but housing was not available and the Ukrainian government had no resources for building the needed houses. With the help of Senator Nunn, we had obtained a design for prefabricated homes from an American contractor and converted a Ukrainian defense factory into a plant for making them, its first task to provide housing for the retired missile officers.

By Senator Lugar’s tally in a 2014 article: altogether, 537 land-based intercontinental missiles were put out of action, along with 496 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, 128 bombers, and many hundreds of shorter-range weapons. Each of those weapons platforms carried multiple nuclear warheads. Fourteen hundred of those warheads were removed from Kazakhstan alone.

In addition, the United States cooperated with the former Soviet states to create meaningful, peaceful work for scientists who might otherwise have been tempted to sell their skills to malevolent bidders.

The hardest problems involved nuclear material that had not yet been installed into a warhead. As the center of the Soviet nuclear-testing program, Kazakhstan suffered a special and intractable burden of unused, unwanted nuclear-weapons material. Belarus and Ukraine could simply put their warheads on trains and then scrap the missiles that had housed them. Kazakhstan had to deal with the chaotic residue of the Soviet testing program.

At the Semipalatinsk Test Site in eastern Kazakhstan, the U.S.S.R. had conducted 456 nuclear tests. About one-fourth of those tests had spewed radioactivity into the open air; the remainder had been conducted underground, leaving poisonous remains—including enough plutonium to make dozens of bombs. In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, scavengers went hunting beneath this “plutonium mountain” to obtain plutonium for resale. It took a team of American, Russian, and Kazakh scientists 17 years to entomb the plutonium beyond reach. The project cost $150 million, or about the same as U.S. taxpayers spent on four years of President Trump’s golf vacations. This work was completed in 2012.

The nuclear waste beneath Kazakhstan could have proved a sinister asset for the wrong kind of regime. Fortunately—and despite all its many faults of authoritarianism and corruption—Kazakhstan has proved a good actor on nuclear and biological weapons. The material that could not be removed to Russia has been encased in thick-walled concrete silos that stud the steppe, patrolled from space by U.S. satellites.

The worst bias in media is the bias against things that work. As the saying goes, nobody reports on the planes that land safely—or the nuclear bombs that don’t get lost and that don’t fall into the hands of terrorists.

Yet newsworthy or not, you have been living more safely these past three decades thanks to the Nunn-Lugar program—and thanks to the hard work of hundreds of career federal employees whose names you will never know.

In 1996, a high-level American delegation visited the former Soviet Union to observe the denuclearization program. The delegates watched American-funded machinery rip apart old Soviet nuclear submarines—an especially tricky task because of the risk that the subs’ antique nuclear engines might leak radiation into the air or water. Senators Nunn and Lugar joined the visit. Afterward, Nunn told CNN reporter Jamie McIntyre:

I’ve voted for missiles; I’ve voted for bombers; I’ve voted for submarines. All of them, in my view, were necessary for our defense. But the best money I ever voted for was the money that is now allowing us to work together to tear down these weapons of mass destruction, and to do it safely.

Russia turned inward, authoritarian, and aggressive under the regime of Vladimir Putin. It withdrew from the cooperative structures of Nunn-Lugar in 2012. By then, though, the most important work to fasten down the once-terrifying “loose nukes” of 1991 had been accomplished. What was left was tidying up, a job effectively completed with the downblending of those last three kilograms of Kazakh weapons-grade uranium this past fall.

Kazakhstan marks the 30th anniversary of its independence in December. In ways few Americans fully understand—and despite the cruel slurs of the Borat movies—the Kazakh state has proved one of the most helpful friends the United States has ever had. The program that did so much to mitigate post-Soviet hazards has faded into history. The civilization-saving job is done. Remembrance and gratitude are due.