By Robert Kelley
In 2007, Tokhtar Aubakirov, a former Kazakh astronaut and parliamentarian claimed that there was an unexploded Soviet nuclear test device at Azgir. His claims sparked a flurry of interest in the site, with a US diplomatic cable, published by Wikileaks. The cable, dated 21 February 2007, explains “[Aubakirov] created a short-lived controversy by alleging that there was an unexploded nuclear device lying unguarded on the “Azgir” test range in western Kazakhstan. The new Deputy Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources threw fuel on the fire when he confused Azgir with the Semipalatinsk test range and referred to trilateral efforts with Russia and the U.S.”. According to the cable, published by Wikileaks , the Kazakh Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, later issued statements refuting the allegation, reaffirmed Kazakhstan’s status as a nuclear-free state and clarified that it was actually an explosive test facility and not a bomb. On 15 February, Kazakhstan’s Channel 31 clarified that the object Aubakirov referred to in Azgir was actually a 12 m diameter metallic sphere which had formerly been used for the production of artificial diamonds.
The US had similar experience with spherical containment chambers much earlier. The details of the VORTEX sphere project have only been partially declassified, but in the period 1958-1961 the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (LRL), now known as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, attempted to build a similar sphere for undefined experiments. LRL was the second of two nuclear weapons physics laboratories in the US, the first being Los Alamos. The VORTEX sphere was to be 16 feet in diameter [c. five metres], reusable and designed to contain an explosive yield of about 135 kg of high explosive. Made by the Chicago Bridge and Iron (CB&I) works in Salt Lake City, Utah, it was scheduled to be delivered to the Nevada test site in the early 1960s, the sphere was made of T-1 or SA-285 steel which is particularly strong. In 1959, however, there was discussion about limiting the yield to 68 kg of high explosive due to problems in preliminary tests.
The sphere was built and the progress reports on the project show that it was possible to weld steel gores for this purpose, much like the steel gores at URDF-3. According to declassified documents, the welding at CB&I was one of the more difficult tasks. The 2.5 inch thick steel walls (63 mm) were difficult to radiograph and the success of the weld was dependent on the “art and experience” of the welders. The VORTEX sphere had crushed ice as a shock absorption medium and a canning and centrifuge system, possibly to remove industrial diamonds or other products of the detonation. Unfortunately the ultimate disposition of the VORTEX sphere and complex of buildings does not appear to have been made public.
PART FIVE: Connections to Iran will be published on 16 July 2018.