By Colin Berlyne
Kazakhstan’s 20-year-long campaign to promote nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and greater nuclear responsibility around the world has taken importantsteps forward in recent years and begun to have a significant international impact.Most recently on October 18, Kazakh, U.S. and Russian agencies successfully completed a complicated project known as the Degelen Project to ensure permanent safe storage for hundreds of kilograms of nuclear material that had remained in Degelen Mountain tunnels since Soviet-era nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.The once-secret project at the Degelen Mountain Complex took years to complete and involved hundreds of kilograms of weapons-usable nuclear material that had been secured in sealed tunnels. Scavenger activity in the area had raised the threat that some of the material might be stolen. The tunnels were reopened, filled with special cement that rendered the nuclear material unusable for weapons purposes, and then resealed."This collaborative effort, announced at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit by the Presidents of the United States, Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Russian Federation, has been unprecedented in terms of actions to combat the threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism,"U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little said in a statement.
And on August 29, the United Nations International Day against Nuclear Tests, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev launched the new ATOM Project, a global initiative to mobilize the support of millions of people around the world to permanently end nuclear testing and abolish all nuclear weapons. (Read the story on The ATOM Project elsewhere in this edition).
Earlier this year, the International Atomic Energy Agency headquartered in Vienna, Austria also approved the creation of an international bank for low-enriched uranium fuel to be located in Kazakhstan. The bank is to be setup in 2013. The chairman of Kazakhstan’s Atomic Energy Agency, Timur Zhantikin, says the purpose of the fuel bank is to improve control over nuclear fuel and, thus, contribute to the strengthening of the security of the international nuclear fuel cycle and the nuclear non-proliferation regime globally.
In May 2011, Kazakhstan announced its choice of the Ulba Metallurgic plant in Oskemen, the capital of East Kazakhstan region, as its proposed site. Kazakh officials assessed that the location satisfied all the IAEA’s requirements.The complex has already been producing dry fuel for nuclear power stations for 50 years. And it will be able comfortably to store as much as 60 tons of gasified low-enriched uranium needed for the creation of the bank.The IAEA formally took the decision to set up the bank in December 2010. President Nazarbayev described it as “a concrete contribution to
strengthening the non-proliferation regime, and elimination of the ‘blind spots’ that exist in the international legal area with regard to the development of national peaceful nuclear programs by a number of states.”Kazakhstan was chosen to host the nuclear fuel bank because of its stable social and political condition and its multi-vector foreign policy which has assured its good relations with nations around the world and the good will of East and West, North and South alike.The decision to locate the fuel bank in the Central Asian nation was also an acknowledgement of Kazakhstan’s long-standing and active participation in global non-proliferation and nuclear weapons reduction, as well as its long history of effective cooperation with the IAEA.
Another milestone in Kazakhstan’s international anti-nuclear weapons leadership in recent years has been the adoption and putting into force in 2009 of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (CANWFZ) Treaty. Kazakhstan, the first nation in the world to shut down a nuclear test site completely following by the renunciation of its nuclear arsenal, signed the treaty along with fellow Central Asian former Soviet republics Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.William Potter of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies has praised the treaty as coming at a crucial time when the global movement for nuclear disarmament and non- proliferation urgently needed to see such progress. The treaty makes Central Asia the fourth region in the world to establish a nuclear weapons free zone and the first such region fully located in the northern hemisphere.
Kazakhstan, represented by President Nazarbayev, also played a leading role at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) held in Seoul, South Korea on March 26-27 this year. The summit was the follow-up gathering to the historic first Nuclear Security Summit convened by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, DC in April2010. Leaders from almost 60 nations attended the summit and agreed on a joint communiqué to cooperate on boosting their international cooperation to ensure the safety of “vulnerable nuclear material.”President Nazarbayev played a prominent role in the Seoul summit, ashe had in Washington, because of Kazakhstan’s example after independence in scrapping the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world that it had inherited from the Soviet Union. It was an arsenal greater in destructive power and numbers than those of Britain, France and China combined.
Also, the suffering of 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan over the past 60 years from cancers and other radiation and nuclear fall-out-related diseases from the 450 Soviet nuclear tests in the Semipalatinsk region from 1949 to 1989 has also contributed to the nation’s moral authority in global disarmament initiatives.“If the international community fails to discontinue the growth in the number of states possessing nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future, the concept of nuclear deterrence may completely lose its meaning,” Kazakhstan’s former Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev has warned. “In this regard, we believe that the steady decline in the number of nuclear arsenals, the unconditional refusal of all members of the international community (to support) horizontal and vertical proliferation, control over proliferation and the non-discriminatory usage of nuclear energy and technology for peaceful purposes under the absolute IAEA supervision is the way that has no alternative.”
President Nazarbayev also noted in his March speech to the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit that the previous year Kazakhstan completed the unprecedented project of transporting 210 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel to safe storage. The country has also ratified the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) to bring it into force by 2014. Kazakhstan is also in the forefront of international efforts to strengthen the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Ban-Test Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT forbids all nuclear testing above or below ground for either military or civilian means. But although the United Nations General Assembly approved the treaty on Sept. 10, 1996, it has not entered into effect.
Kazakhstan’s examples in these initiatives have had a special impact across the Muslim worldbecause Kazakhstan ensured that history would reflect that the one of the first countries to unilaterally disarm a nuclear arsenal was Muslim. “We rose above the global threat and made a principled choice in favour of non-proliferation for our country and the world,” President Nazarbayev said, recalling his fateful decision to opt for a nuclear weapons-free future after winning national independence. Kazakhstan also chaired in 2011-12 the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Kazakhstan also plays a leading role in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) that was started in 2006 by Presidents George W. Bush of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia. President Nazarbayev hosted a GICNT conference in Astana in September 2010. It focused on combating the financing of terrorism and saw the first meeting of the initiative’s Panel on Implementation and Evaluation. Kazakhstan has also presented a proposal to create a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons similar to the one that now exists in Central Asia.
The dark cloud of the possibility of nuclear conflict has not lifted from the human race. But the achievements of the two nuclear security summits, the nuclear disarmament agreements between the world’s largest nuclear power, the U.S. and Russia, the upcoming creation of the new international bank for low-enriched uranium fuel Bank as well as the other non-proliferation initiatives around the world in which Kazakhstan is either a leader or active participant offer the hope of another and better way. The commitment of the Kazakhstan government and its people to that better way is rooted in their historic values and the awful price they paid during 40 years of nuclear testing and its aftermath.