It’s now almost 20 years since President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and then U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III made their epochal gentleman’s agreement to team up on scrapping Kazakhstan’s nuclear arsenal and ridding the newly independent nation of the dangerous nuclear military it had inherited from the Soviet Union.
It seemed the most unlikely way to assure the peace of the world from atomic war and the first unilateral military nuclear disarmament of any nation in history.
The date was Dec. 11, 1991 and Baker, secretary of state to U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush, was paying his first visit to Almaty, then the capital of Kazakhstan. It was five days before Kazakhstan was to declare independence as a free nation.
Nazarbayev, about to become the founding president of Kazakhstan, welcomed Baker to his home for dinner that night. As British historian Jonathan Aitken wrote in his definitive English language biography of Nazarbayev, the evening “included the singing of Kazakh and American songs led by (Nazarbayev’s) daughter Dariga at the piano, followed by several vodka toasts to what Nazarbayev called ‘A U.S.-Kazakh strategic alliance.'”
Afterwards, Nazarbayev invited Baker to take part in a banya, or steam bath, a beloved Kazakh variation on the more famous Finnish and Russian sauna. And in the usual procedures of a banya, Nazarbayev struck Baker’s back with a collection of birch twigs to open up his body pores to the steam. This prompted Robert Strauss, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union who was accompanying Baker, to joke to their American Secret Service bodyguards, “Get me the President of the United States on the phone! His secretary of state is buck naked and he’s being beaten by the President of Kazakhstan.”
That bath in the banya had profound and lasting positive consequences for regional security and world peace. It led to 20 years of daring, top secret cooperation between the nuclear agencies of the United States and Kazakhstan that played a crucial role in guaranteeing continuing world peace.
American experts quietly flew regularly into Kazakhstan and conferred quietly with their Kazakh opposite numbers. The scale of the operations to manage the aftermath of disarmament and to safeguard the spent nuclear materials dwarfed the spy fantasies of Ian Fleming, author of the famed James Bond series.
Entire new rail systems were constructed and huge fleets of trucks hired and supervised to carry the sensitive and potential dangerous nuclear material. New facilities had to be built to house them. Even special transportation containers had to be designed and manufactured to carry them. And all these things had to be done in utter secrecy over a period of nearly two decades.
To make the challenge even harder, the Kazakh and U.S. nuclear inspectors and safety officials kept finding new caches of Soviet era material they had not been informed about. Usually it appeared that the Soviet authorities had just forgotten about it. On one occasion, Washington Post reporter David Hoffman wrote in a report in 2009, that the Kazakh and American investigators found what appeared to be an ordinary, unguarded storeroom containing simple steel buckets and canisters containing weapons-grade, 90 percent pure Uranium-235. There was enough of it there to make as many as 24 atomic bombs.
The buckets and canisters were casually set 10-feet apart from each other, Hoffman wrote. If anyone had moved them any closer, he could have set off a nuclear chain-reaction. The uranium-235 rods were “wrapped in foil, as if they were items in a picnic cooler,” Hoffman wrote.
In what was later to become known as Project Sapphire, in 1994 professionals from the two countries worked together to secretly transport all of that uranium to the United States for blending down and further usage in peaceful atomic reactors.
The Kazakh and U.S. teams took that kind of experience in their stride. Behind closed doors, with a quiet efficiency and a careful discretion worthy of James Bond, their crucial work has continued into recent days.
Over the past four years, the two countries have quietly cooperated in transferring the spent nuclear fuel of the old Soviet era BN-350 nuclear reactor in the city of Aktau in western Kazakhstan – and transferring it to the former Semipalatinsk nuclear test site for dead storage.
Kazakh and U.S. experts carried out joint feasibility studies in 2007. Over the next three years, they quietly transferred material – 10 metric tonnes of highly enriched uranium and three metric tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium by rail on special trains, in metal-concrete containers. By the end of 2010 all the spent nuclear fuel – enough to make about 800 nuclear bombs – had been stored in their new facility and stored in a secure location in safety cocoons filled with inert gas.
The work was carried out under the terms of a U.S.-Kazakh nuclear weapons delimitation, or silo agreement that was concluded back on Dec. 13, 1999. The costs of building the necessary rail and other transportation facilities and storage were paid by the United States and Britain. The costs of actual transportation and safety measures were paid by the Republic of Kazakhstan.
By Nov. 15, 2010, all the spent nuclear fuel from the BN-350 reactor had been safely removed and transported to its new facilities specially designed for long-term safe storage in the former Semipalatinsk nuclear testing range.
President Nazarbayev maintained his partnership to locate, remove and safely store the lethal nuclear material his country inherited from the Soviet era through the administrations of four different U.S. presidents. Nazarbayev remained loyally committed to that policy in the face of pressures and offers from countless sources.
Radical states in different parts of the world and extremist organizations all dreamed of being able to lay their hands on some of the 1,410 nuclear warheads that Kazakhstan had inherited from the disintegrating Soviet Union. At the time, it was a larger nuclear arsenal than those of China, Britain and France combined.
If Nazarbayev had been a different kind of man – and the Kazakhs a very different people — the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 – 9/11 – might then have had vastly more awful, even apocalyptic consequences. So it was no wonder that the Kazakh and U.S. teams working on locating and securing the Soviet-era nuclear material took the precautions of 007 super-secret agents.
This James Bond-style secret partnership between the Americans and the Kazakhs held. There were no breaches of security. None of the sensitive nuclear material was lost or stolen. Muslim-majority Kazakhstan became the first nation in history to completely and unilaterally scrap a nuclear arsenal. Even after the work of literal nuclear disarmament was completed in 1995, the partnership continued to function over the next 15 years to trace, remove and safely store other potentially dangerous nuclear material such as the spent fuel from the BN-350 reactor.
The American and Kazakh officials involved in these super-secret operations developed a high regard for each other. Many lasting friendships were formed. But the Kazakh and American engineers and administrators involved in this vast operation seem to remember it in different ways.
To the Kazakhs, the super-secrecy was a necessary precaution and condition of their activities, but otherwise they saw it all as just another day’s work. Several of them expressed mild amusement at the way so many Americans who were involved liked to see themselves as daredevil James Bonds. And sure enough, many of the American accounts seem to dramatically hype discoveries or successful transportations of nuclear fuel that the Kazakhs shrugged off as “just routine.”
But there was nothing routine about the genuine passion the Kazakhs, like their American partners, brought to the mission of creating and maintaining the safety of nuclear materials. Knowledge of the deaths and suffering of more than a million people over 40 years from the more than 450 nuclear tests carried out in the Soviet era haunted them all.
In his biography of President Nazarbayev, Aitken describes vividly how when Nazarbayev, as a young man, worked as a steelmaker at Karaganda Magnitka, 200 miles to the west from the Soviet nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk, his home would be shaken by earthquake-like tremors every time an underground nuclear test took place. “As a father, he would see his daughters so terrified by the nuclear tremors that they rushed into his arms screaming ‘Papa, Papa – It’s an earthquake!'”
That shared passion was the secret weapon driving 20 years of successful US-Kazakh activities to put the nuclear genie safely back in its bottle. And it all started when a visiting U.S. secretary of state listened to a young Kazakh lady play folk songs on the piano and agreed to let his Kazakh host strike his back with birch twigs in a banya two decades ago.