REVIEW: Article

Kazakhstan: Building a Nuclear-Safe World

The discovery of the energy of atom fission was a fruit of human genius. But using this discovery for military purposes is the result of artful carelessness of people. We have a chance to correct this mistake of the 20th century…Renunciation of war and nuclear weapons would be an act of supreme wisdom of humanity in the 21st century.

-  Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan


As the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly convened on  September 19, 2017, in New York to address issues with worldwide implications, significant attention was paid to nuclear nonproliferation and the threat that possession of  nuclear weapons presents to the security of the entire interna­tional community.

Addressing the Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson con­veyed a comprehensive vision of reducing the threats emanating from weapons of mass destruction.

First and foremost, Secretary Tillerson outlined the importance of highlighting the positive trajectories of nations that have voluntarily renounced their nuclear weapons.

In this context, he said, “Kazakhstan is a particularly illustrative example of the wisdom of relinquishing nuclear weapons. In partnership with the United States, and aided by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act spearheaded by U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, Kazakhstan opted to remove from its territory former Soviet weapons and related nuclear technologies, and [it] joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-weapons state.”

This courageous decision by the leaders of Kazakhstan greatly reduced the prospect of nuclear weapons, components of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials and dual-use technologies from falling into the wrong hands. Nuclear weapons introduced complexity into relations with other countries, and they introduced the risk of miscalculation, accident or escalation. Kazakhstan’s actions represented a key step in that country’s becoming part of the community of nations.

As a result of Kazakhstan’s letting go of nuclear weapons, the world does not look on Kazakhstan as a potential nuclear aggressor or a rogue state. It did not make enemies of its nuclear neighbors, Russia or China. Today Kazakhstan has overwhelmingly been at peace with its neighbors, and its trade relations are robust. This year, it hosted World Expo 2017, an event in Astana that showcased the sources of future energy and investment opportunities in Kazakhstan to attendees from around the world.

This demonstrates that Kazakhstan is a modern nation making a substantial contribution to regional and international peace and prosperity. Kazakhstan has only benefitted from its early decision. In my previous career, I met President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the founding president of Kazakhstan, on many occasions and had the opportunity to ask him about this decision. He is more at peace with his choice than ever. He once remarked to me, “It was the best thing I ever did for our young country.”

Indeed, the international community is well aware of the fact that one of the legacies of the former Soviet Union’s policy strategy in the aftermath of World War II and as a result of the Cold War arms race was building the new nuclear-weapons complex on Kazakhstan soil. The USSR leadership sought to use the country’s central geographical location to deploy Soviet nuclear missiles in a way that would reach even the most remote parts of the world and lead to the most devastating outcomes in affected areas.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the newly independent Kazakhstan overnight emerged as the fourth-largest nuclear power in the world. Having inherited the major Soviet nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk and some of the largest nuclear weapons, including 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 40 Tu-95 strategic bombers with air-launched cruise missiles—comprising approximately 1,410 nuclear warheads in total—the young country could pose a serious threat to the international community.

But it did not pursue this destructive path. Instead, as a firm believer in confidence-building measures, dialogue and partnership, Nazarbayev laid down a comprehensive long-term strategy aimed at complete dismantle­ment and removal of one of the world’s most pivotal nuclear arsenals and establishment of his nation as a reliable partner globally.

On August 29, 1991, President Nazarbayev signed a decree to close the Semipalatinsk test range, making Kazakhstan the first nation in history to shut down its nuclear testing site. The decree also prohibited further nuclear weapons testing on Kazakhstan’s territory. The shutdown of the Semipalatinsk Test Site sent an important message to the international community, and its spillover effect paved the way for closing the world’s other major testing sites in Nevada, Novaya Zemlya, Lop Nur and Moruroa.

One of the most significant steps in the country’s nonproliferation efforts occurred in 1994, when a joint Kazakhstan-United States operation named Project Sapphire transferred to the United States approximately 600 kilograms of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium from the Ulba Metallurgical Plant. As a result of this joint exercise, in 2001 Kazakhstan removed about 2,900 kilograms of nuclear fuel from the Mangyshlak Atomic Energy Combine in Aktau, where it was down-blended into forms of uranium suitable for use in commercial and scientific purposes.

In December 1994, Kazakhstan signed the Treaty on The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear state. In return for Kazakhstan’s renouncing of its nuclear arsenal, the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia have provided the country with formal security guarantees, thereby contributing to peaceful development and unlocking the economic potential of the newly independent country.

Leading by example, during the next two-and-a-half decades of its devoted campaign, Kazakhstan became a global advocate of arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. At Kazakhstan’s initiative, the United Nations General Assembly has recog­nized August 29, the day on which Kazakhstan shut down the Semipalatinsk testing ground, as the official International Day against Nuclear Tests.

On the 20th anniversary of the Semipalatinsk site’s closing, in 2011, the nation’s capital Astana hosted an International Forum for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free-World that led, a year later, to even broader engagement, representation and support, including two hundred participants from 75 countries, the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the international conference “From a Nuclear Test Ban to a Nuclear Weapons-Free World.” 

A few years later, Kazakhstan’s anti-nuclear diplomacy took another significant step by bringing into force the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone Agreement (CANWFZ), which plays a pivotal role in contributing to global peace and stability. The CANWFZ is the world’s fifth nuclear-weapons-free zone and obliges all signatory parties not to research, develop, stockpile or otherwise try to obtain any nuclear explosive devices, as well as obliging them to avoid assisting other countries from undertaking such activities in the regions covered by the zone. Another important feature of CANWFZ is that it covers a vast territory and is the first NWFZ to be solely in the Northern Hemisphere.

In addition to providing a legal framework for promoting a nuclear-free regime, Kazakhstan in recent years has devoted paramount attention to the realization of its international commitments in this area. As interest in nuclear energy grows, the world risks the spread of enrichment technology that can be used for nuclear weapons. To address these challenges, Kazakhstan has been working closely with the international community to develop an internationally ensured supply of low-enriched uranium and creating an option for countries choosing not to develop uranium enrichment capabilities.

One of the most significant practical implications of Kazakhstan’s orchestrated efforts has been the establishment on its territory of a new $150 million facility—a reserve bank for low-enriched uranium (LEU) to discourage new countries from enriching nuclear fuel—under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency and with the valuable support of the United States, the European Union, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Norway and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The LEU Bank was launched this year on August 29 to mark the 25th anniversary since Kazakhstan’s leadership made that strategic decision to renounce its nuclear arsenal. The purposely built, secure and safe facility is based in the eastern part of Kazakhstan, in the city of Oskemen. It is designed to store up to 90 tons of the fuel, which is sufficient to power a large city for as long as three years and sell it to IAEA members in such cases when they are not able to purchase it anywhere else.

As the IAEA Director General noted at the inauguration of the facility in August, “The LEU Bank will serve as a last-resort mechanism to provide confidence to countries that they will be able to obtain LEU for the manufacture of fuel for nuclear power plants in the event of unforeseen, non-commercial disruption to their supplies. I am confident that the IAEA LEU Bank will make a valuable contribution to international efforts.” The project was also described by the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) as the “first of its kind not to be under control of any individual country.”

Indeed, the LEU Bank encourages countries investing in nuclear power for peaceful purposes to refrain from unnecessary high costs of building their own enrichment facilities and global proliferation risks. As noted by former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, NTI co-founder, “The launching of the IAEA LEU Bank is a major milestone for global security and nonproliferation efforts. The Bank will play an important role in reducing nuclear danger and serve as a vivid example of the benefits of international cooperation at a time when our world is in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.”

Widely praised for these efforts and its exemplary role in building a nuclear-safe world, Kazakhstan will not cease to work closely with the international community and all actors involved to put forward these crucial ideas. In fact, nuclear security will remain on the top of the country’s agenda during its 2017-2018 membership at the United Nations Security Council.

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Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United States of American