The sparsely populated region where the storage facility is also is home to the defunct Semipalatinsk Test Site, a 7,000-square-mile expanse of steppe where the Soviet Union conducted more than 460 nuclear test explosions from 1949 to 1990 while Kazakhstan was a Soviet republic.
“The project is a very significant technical achievement,” D’Agostino said in an interview Nov. 8 that McClatchy agreed to embargo until the operation was completed. “This isn’t stuff you just put on a truck and drive across a country.”
“The cost is very, very small compared to the cost of the wrong people getting their hands" on the material, asserted a US official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the project publicly.
Former President Bill Clinton began the project in 1996, when the US helped Kazakhstan inventory the spent nuclear fuel that had accumulated at BN-350, which started producing plutonium for Soviet nuclear weapons in 1972. The reactor also provided power to Aktau.
The year before the project commenced, Kazakhstan had returned 1,410 nuclear warheads to Moscow that it inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
US experts helped shut down BN-350 in 1999 and build a storage facility there until a more secure site could be found for nearly 3,000 assemblies that contained more than 140 tons of spent fuel. The spent fuel included the 14 tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the largest stock of such materials outside the world’s nuclear-armed countries.