Project Sapphire: a model for defense by other means

David Hoffman’s chapter on Project Sapphire in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Dead Hand reads like a spy-thriller novel — complete with a young American diplomat protagonist, angry Russians, a top-secret “Tiger Team” and enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to make 24 nuclear bombs.

Project Sapphire was the first major success of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which passed just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In November 1994, a team of 25 Americans transported 1,322 pounds of HEU from the Ulba metallurgical factory in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to be blended down to low-enriched uranium.  The operation was an enormous success thanks to the cooperation and discretion of the Kazakh and American governments.

In 1994, “the Russian nuclear establishment was showing the same signs of deterioration as the rest of the country.” Fissile material across the country “was stored in rooms and warehouses easy for an amateur burglar to crack;” the 90 or 91 percent-enriched Uranium 235 (nearly weapons-grade) was kept “safe” by what was described by the American diplomat protagonist Andy Weber as “a Civil War padlock.”

The dismal standard of safety and security of nuclear material at the fall of the Soviet Union lends to the fact that threat of nuclear war isn’t our greatest danger, loose nuclear material and weapons are.

Since Project Sapphire, Central Asia and specifically Kazakhstan have become a world leader in non-proliferation efforts. In 1991, Kazakhstan inherited 1,410 nuclear warheads and the world’s largest bioweapons plant. By 2001, Kazakhstan was free of nuclear weapons; and in 2009, all five Central Asian republics ratified the Central Asia Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone (CANWFZ) treaty.

At the 20th anniversary event commemorating Project Sapphire at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), David Hoffman and Andy Weber, along with Laura Holgate (Senior Director of WMD Terrorism and Threat Reduction at the National Security Council) spoke of last year’s removal and destruction of chemical weapons from Syria under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as the “child” of Project Sapphire and an example of how interagency cooperation and technical experts working together has made the world a safer place.

The destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and Project Sapphire were as much logistical successes as examples of how diplomacy is just as important to our security enterprise as military action. Speaking at the Department of Defense in March 1995, former Defense Secretary William Perry spoke of Project Sapphire as “defense by other means.”

Projects like the National Nuclear Administration’s (NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) established in 2004 have demonstrated the power of defense by other means.In the past 10 years, the GTRI has shut down 49 HEU reactors in 25 countries and disposed of more than 4,100 kilograms of HEU and plutonium.  But some of the most difficult countries to extract from, such as Belarus and South Africa, still have weapons-usable nuclear materials.

In his historic 2009 Prague speech, President Obama reinvigorated efforts to secure rogue nuclear materials:

“Today I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. We will set up new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, [and] pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.”

The administration surged funding for the GTRI after the President’s 2009 and since, funding for non-proliferation programs such as GTRI has been on the decline. For the third year in a row the FY 2015 budget request for the NNSA was slashed.

While it is all fine and good to celebrate the success of GTRI and its predecessor programs in helping secure loose nuclear material, the program’s progress should be measured not by how much material has been secured, but by how much could potentially end up in the hands of terrorists. Funding for nuclear weapons programs at the expense of non-proliferation efforts is counterproductive to U.S. national security.

As Obama mentioned in his 2009 speech, cooperation with Russia is integral to reducing nuclear threats worldwide.  At the CSIS event, Laura Holgate spoke of the need for the non-proliferation advocacy community to be creative in encouraging Congress to engage diplomatically with Russia. It is in the interest of U.S. national security to continue working with Russia on areas of consistent cooperation such as the elimination of chemical weapons from Syria, and as members of the P5+1 and Iran negotiations.

An amicable relationship between Russia and the United States is not only good for national security but for the world.