ATB_EP_5

A Secret Mission to Thwart Nuclear Terrorism

Early in 1994, Andy Weber was serving in Kazakhstan as U.S. political-military attaché, when his auto mechanic asked if he wanted to buy some uranium. There was a wild-west atmosphere in this brand new country, with lots of black market activity and scamming, but Weber knew that Kazakhstan had inherited a large part of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal when that empire broke up, and he decided he needed to find out what was up. After a convoluted series of clandestine steps, he was finally able to ascertain that his mechanic was telling the truth: there was actually what turned out to be over 600 kg of highly enriched uranium kept in barrels in a warehouse of an old factory—enough to make as many as 20 atomic bombs.

SAPPHIRE 9 barrels holding HEU for shipment2
SAPPHIRE-5-HEU-rods-in-can
And to think that this metal which I held in my hand could potentially have the destructive power to destroy entire cities and kill tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. It just was an emotional, emotional day for me to understand there was that much material there. — ANDY WEBER

In this episode we hear from Andy and the others involved the incredible story of what became known as Project Sapphire, the top-secret operation that was mounted by the U.S. to smuggle out this fissile material before it could be stolen by terrorists or sold to Iranian agents. Andy Weber, Bill Perry and Jeffrey Starr talk about the complicated logistics of mounting this operation in the dead of winter in Kazakhstan while keeping it secret. Terrorism expert Brian Jenkins tells us why the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists was so urgent. Corey Hinderstein and Samantha Neakrase of the Nuclear Threat Initiative describe the ways we are working today to lower the threat of a nuclear terror attack, either by a dirty bomb or an improvised nuclear device.

Guests:

Brian Jenkins  @BrianMJenkins
Terrorism expert; senior advisor to the president of RAND Corporation; author of Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?

Corey Hinderstein   @CoreyAH
Vice President, International Fuel Cycle Strategies, Nuclear Threat Initiative

Samantha Neakrase   @sampittskiefer
Senior Director, Materials Risk Management, Nuclear Threat Initiative

Bill Perry @SecDef19
19th U.S. Secretary of Defense; co-author, THE BUTTON: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump

Jeffrey Starr
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia and Chairman of the Project Sapphire “Tiger Team”; Managing Partner, Neo Prime; Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland

Andy Weber
Former political-military attaché for the United States in Kazakhstan; on-site coordinator for Project Sapphire

Additional resources: