Since its inception in the early 1940s and through much of the Cold War, the Soviet atomic project was the focus of a massive intelligence effort by the United States and its allies. Of primary interest were the issues of uranium availability; the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium; nuclear warhead R&D and testing; and the nuclear weapons production and management infrastructure.
Washington needed such information to assess the Soviet nuclear strike capability. Estimates of the Soviet inventories of HEU and plutonium when put together with data on warhead designs would allow CIA analysts to gauge the size and composition of the Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile. Information on Moscow's knowledge of nuclear weapons effects was needed to evaluate the capability of the Soviet Union to design warheads for air-defense and anti-missile missiles and to develop hardened warheads capable of surviving US ballistic missile defenses. Analysis of the impact on the Soviet nuclear weapons program of testing moratoriums and the proposed limited test ban treaty was critical when Washington was developing its position on these issues in the 1950s and 1960s.
In pursuing these objectives, the US atomic energy intelligence effort was global in scope. It involved a wide range of covert operations, exploitation of open source materials, and the use of technical collection systems. While much has been written about US operations against Soviet targets (including in Studies in Intelligence), relatively little attention has been given to the USSR's elaborate countermeasures intended to prevent the West from learning about its nuclear program. Based on public information, this article seeks to examine the Soviet nuclear denial and deception (D&D) campaign from 1945 until 1970.
This period is of particular interest. The 1950s and 1960s were the formative years of the Soviet nuclear program. By the end of this period, Moscow had a mature nuclear weapons technology base and a thoroughly integrated and redundant weapons complex, the configuration of which remained largely the same until the end of the Cold War. In many ways, these were also the most dangerous years of the Cold War. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis and other dramatic events of that period were of critical significance in shaping approaches to national defense, foreign policy, and intelligence that served each country for the balance of the Cold War confrontation.
Protecting Nuclear Secrets
The nuclear weapons program, the crown jewel of Soviet military power, has always been a closely guarded secret. During its early years, the program was directed by the Special Committee chaired by Lavrenti Beria, the head of the Soviet NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs). State security generals were appointed to key management positions at nuclear research institutes and production facilities. The NKVD, which eventually became the KGB, played a key role in nuclear safeguards and the physical protection of nuclear facilities. The NKVD also was charged with nuclear construction and had the power to establish and run its own nuclear R&D and production facilities. For example, the Bochvar Institute of Inorganic Materials (VNIINM), responsible for the development of plutonium production and processing technologies, was established in 1944 as the NII-9 research institute in the NKVD system—it was not transferred to the broader nuclear program until October 1945.
The pervasive role of state security organizations in the Soviet atomic effort was due to the program's high priority for national security; the requirement for absolute secrecy; the ability of nuclear managers with state security backgrounds to get things done; and the NKVD's vast resources, which included funding, materiel, and a workforce drawn from the GULAG prison network.
Beria was executed following the death of Stalin in 1953, and subsequent purges of many former and active NKVD/KGB officers reduced the state security presence in the nuclear complex. The program itself was reorganized in June 1953 to become the USSR Ministry of Medium Machine Building (Minsredmash, the predecessor of today's Ministry of Atomic Power, Minatom), and it started to resemble other ministries of the Soviet military-industrial complex.
The emphasis on secrecy and security in the nuclear area remained, however. To thwart foreign intelligence operations, the Soviet Union built an elaborate, multi-layered system of denial and deception, the main elements of which included the restriction of access to nuclear facilities and personnel, strict information protection measures, an enhanced counterintelligence posture, and technical countermeasures.
Denial of Access
Secrecy considerations were paramount in the development of the nuclear infrastructure. While some research and design laboratories were established in Moscow and other open cities, the more critical fissile material production centers and nuclear weapons research and production facilities were built in 10 closed nuclear cities, which are now known by their Russian acronym ZATO. The construction of the first-line nuclear weapons R&D center (Sarov) and fissile material production facilities (Ozersk, Novouralsk, and Lesnoy) began during 1946-47. Subsequently, they were joined by a cluster of second-line facilities (Snezhinsk, Trekhgorny, Seversk, Zheleznogorsk, Zelenogorsk, and Zarechny), most located in the Urals and western Siberia.
To conceal operations from foreign spies and increase survivability against an atomic bombardment, nuclear cities were built in densely forested areas deep inside the USSR's land mass. The cities did not appear on maps. In non-secret documents, they were assigned the names of nearby towns and a numerical suffix. The use of post-box numbers continued until the early 1990s.
D&D considerations at times were decisive in determining the design and location of new nuclear facilities. For example, secrecy was the main factor in moving the first plutonium production complex (now the Mayak complex) from the initially proposed remote location near the Ufa River to its current location in Ozersk, near Lake Kyzyltash. According to a letter from the atomic project's science director Igor Kurchatov to Beria:
[I]n considering issues related to the construction of Plant 817 [the code-name of the Mayak complex] it was established that water in cooling towers would have a temperature of about 80o C. The resulting steam, which would be inevitably produced in large quantities (especially during winter), would thereby compromise the concealment . . . siting the plant near a lake would simplify the problem considerably because large quantities of water would allow cooling without cooling towers . . . and steam formation would be avoided . . . . The site near Lake Kyzyltash was proposed to the Special Committee. The [main] argument against this site . . . is that the lake could serve as a navigation landmark for aerial reconnaissance. I consider this argument unconvincing because the site is located in the part of the Urals, which, within a small area, contains a very large number of similarly shaped lakes. I therefore urge you to consider moving Plant 817's site to Lake Kyzyltash.
This was how the closed city of Ozersk and the plutonium complex, a source of several major environmental disasters in the Urals, was established.
The closed cities represented an integral part of the layered security system built around nuclear weapons facilities. Each city occupied a large restricted area—232 square kilometers in the case of Sarov, for example—that was surrounded by double fences. Inside the restricted area were a town for the facility workforce, large wooded areas, and several isolated technical areas that housed primary research and production facilities, testing areas, and support infrastructure. Technical areas within the restricted area were surrounded by their own double or triple fences, which were patrolled by armed guards.
A layer outside the perimeter was designated as a special regime zone, where every resident had to have a permit and a passport. Temporary residence—even overnight accommodation of non-residents—was prohibited. Non-residents could not even pick mushrooms and berries or hunt in the zone. Ex-criminals and other undesirable elements were prevented from residing in the special regime zones.
Critical nuclear facilities were on the government's priority list for "active air defense measures."5 All military and civilian over-flights were prohibited. The U-2 plane piloted on 1 May 1961 by Gary Powers over the plutonium complex in Ozersk (and shot down shortly thereafter by an SA-2 surface-to-air missile near Yekaterinburg) was the first airplane over this facility in the almost 15 years of its operation.