On April 5, 2009 in the Czech capital of Prague US President Barack Obama declared to the world “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. This unprecedented speech by an American head of state sparked a wave of enthusiasm among peoples and governments that had long urged the world’s internationally condoned nuclear-weapon powers (the US, Russia, France, Great Britain, and China) and the international community at large to step up their efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear materials and weapons across the globe as well as to pursue concrete steps towards worldwide nuclear disarmament.
While it is primarily the nuclear-weapon states that hold the key to nuclear disarmament, non-nuclear-weapon states have made a wide variety of concrete commitments to secure the technology, know-how, and fissile materials required to create a nuclear weapon. Moreover, many of these states have been extremely vocal and active in their quest to make nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament a priority, therewith putting pressure on the nuclear-weapon states to follow suit. Here, Kazakhstan, as result of its painful experience with nuclear weapons testing and its strong non-proliferation record, stands out as a clear example of a country that has diligently worked to make the idea of a world without nuclear weapons a reality.
The Soviet Union’s nuclear legacy in Kazakhstan
More than 450 nuclear weapons were tested by the Soviet Union between 1949 and 1989 at the Semipalatinsk test site (commonly known as “the Polygon”) in today’s Kazakhstan. These tests exposed an estimated one and a half million locals to dangerous doses of radiation, the effects of which are still visible today in the region’s abnormally high rates of cancer, birth defects, and infertility. Kazakhstan closed the nuclear weapons test site following the collapse of the Soviet Union and proceeded to clear its territory of the nuclear legacy that had been left behind. In this context, Kazakhstan became the primary beneficiary of assistance under the US-led Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which helped the country to seal away weapons-usable plutonium, secure the by-products of nuclear weapons testing, and transfer large quantities of weapons-grade uranium out of its territories to Russia and the United States.
Upon gaining independence in 1991 Kazakhstan also inherited the world’s fourth largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. Its ultimate decision to abandon these weapons marked a turning point in Kazakhstan’s history. Firstly, it provided Kazakhstan with the moral and political license to demand that other countries follow its lead and act decisively in the name of achieving tangible gains in universal nuclear disarmament. Secondly, it set a precedent for non-proliferation in the post-Cold War era, illustrating how a state should actively and voluntarily forego the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Since then, Kazakhstan has become an active participant in and architect of a number of initiatives that continue to make the world safer from the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials. After gaining independence, Kazakhstan quickly integrated into the nuclear world order as it acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NTP) in 1991. Herewith, Kazakhstan ascribed to the Treaty’s three pillars of non-proliferation, peaceful use of nuclear energy, and disarmament. Since then, the country has worked to strengthen the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime set up by the NPT by fighting to put an end to nuclear weapons testing, leading the charge to strengthen regional cooperation on nuclear issues, and championing the safe and responsible use of nuclear energy.
The global movement to put an end to nuclear weapons testing of all sorts, whether in space, the atmosphere, the sea, or underground, occupies a special place in the national spirit of Kazakhstan due to the country’s firsthand experience with the lasting havoc that such tests can wreak. In this sense, Kazakhstan signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 2002, thereby calling for a ban on all nuclear explosions in any environment and at the hands of any actor, whether civilian or military. According to the Treaty’s Preparatory Commission, Kazakhstan also hosts three seismological stations that “are capable of registering vibrations from a possible nuclear explosion” and thereby help to verify Treaty compliance. So far 183 states have signed the CTBT and 164 have ratified it.
Nonetheless, the Treaty cannot be brought into force by the UN General Assembly until it is signed by all “nuclear-capable” countries. So far, five of these countries have signed but not ratified the Treaty (China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the US) while three have not even signed it (North Korea, India, and Pakistan). Unfortunately, the status of the Treaty remains the same today, even after Kazakhstan (along with Japan) was nominated in 2015 to spearhead international efforts to promote the Treaty’s entry into force.
Aside from its multilateral and international institutional efforts, Kazakhstan also actively works to incite grassroots movements around the world. In this regard it launched the ATOM Project, “an international campaign designed to do more than create awareness surrounding the human and environmental devastation caused by nuclear weapons testing”. The Project calls for a worldwide moment of silence to honor the victims of nuclear weapons testing on 29 August, a day that is now globally recognized as the UN International Day Against Nuclear Tests thanks to Kazakhstan’s initiative. The date also symbolically signifies the date of the closure of the Semipalatinsk test site.
Regional cooperation and confidence building
On the regional front, Kazakhstan has also played a significant role in taking tangible steps in the name of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. On September 8, 2006 at the Semipalatinsk test site, the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan came together to establish the Central Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (CANWFZ). The so-called Semipalatinsk Treaty that established this Zone prohibits its signatories from developing, acquiring, researching, possessing, controlling, or storing any nuclear weapons or explosive devices. Moreover, the provisions of the Treaty itself strengthen international non-proliferation and verification mechanisms, as it requires its signees to adopt the Additional Protocol and thereby to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency greater access to all aspects of their nuclear energy and technology programs.
In 1999, Kazakhstan also initiated the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), an intergovernmental forum that works to establish security cooperation and dialogue in Eurasia. CICA currently consists of 26 member states (including the nuclear-weapon states of China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Israel) and has not shied away from discussing nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. In this regard the Conference has voiced the need to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula through the reestablishment of the Six-Party Talks, called for the adoption of a universal declaration on achieving a world without nuclear weapons, and supported the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.
Safe and responsible nuclear energy
One of the most discussed topics in the realm of nuclear security and non-proliferation revolves around the production of fissile materials. Considering the fact that highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used in the construction of a nuclear weapon, and low enriched uranium (LEU), which is the primary fuel for nuclear energy, are both products of the same enrichment process, the international community has long sought a way to provide countries with access to nuclear fuel without requiring them to pursue their own national enrichment programs. In 2015, this concept took on the beginnings of its material form when the IAEA and Kazakhstan agreed to establish the IAEA LEU Bank at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen, Kazakhstan. The first of its kind, the LEU Bank is expected to provide IAEA member states with access to nuclear fuel as a lender of last resort, or in other words if they cannot acquire this material via the open market or inter-state arrangements. Nonetheless, the mission of the Bank could grow with time. The IAEA LEU Bank will be owned and controlled by the IAEA but operated by Kazakhstan, and all of its operations will be carried out in accordance with stringent safety rules and regulations under the direct oversight of the IAEA.
Kazakhstan’s affiliation with fissile materials is also characterized by its physical geography. According to a joint report by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the IAEA, Kazakhstan hosts the world’s second largest amount of uranium reserves after Australia. As of 2014 it also became the world’s leading uranium producer. Nonetheless, the country does not have any uranium enrichment facilities or functioning nuclear power plants. As of 2014, however, Kazakhstan signed a cooperation agreement and memorandum of understanding with Russia on the construction of a nuclear power plant possibly in the eastern town of Kurchatov near Semipalatinsk.
Moreover, when it comes to the creation of fissile materials, Kazakhstan has repeatedly spoken out in favor of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty that would prohibit the further production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which are the essential components of any nuclear explosive device. Such a treaty has nonetheless never been negotiated at the UN General Assembly primarily due to Pakistan’s opposition to what it perceives as the treaty’s potential to lock it into a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis India.
Today, when looking back on Obama’s exalted Prague speech that laid out how the US would lead the charge for a world without nuclear weapons, much is still left to be desired seven years later. Although a sitting US president had never so clearly and succinctly committed himself to absolute global disarmament, many of the concrete initiatives that Obama mentioned in his speech remain unfulfilled. This is unfortunate considering that much of the international enthusiasm surrounding what seemed to be the US’s new nuclear weapons policy were predicated on the fact that this unprecedented approach was being voiced by one of the world’s preeminent nuclear powers. In reality, global disarmament cannot be achieved unless these powers make it their priority to disarm.
Nonetheless, non-nuclear-weapon states continue to emphasize the reality that all countries, regardless of their economic, military, or political standings, are equally affected by the global threat posed by the proliferation and physical use of nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan is acutely aware of this and its efforts in this field serve as a strong example for other countries, including the world’s nuclear powers. In Prague, when Obama called for the US’s ratification of the CTBT, Kazakhstan had already done so. When he called for the establishment of a fissile material cut-off treaty, Kazakhstan had already long been supportive. When he called for the establishment of an international nuclear fuel bank, Kazakhstan offered to host the facility within its territory. Ultimately, it is safe to say that Kazakhstan’s past and present efforts to promote a world without nuclear weapons have gone above and beyond, yet perhaps most importantly, they have given credence to the old adage, “actions speak louder than words”.
John Morris Dykes, English Language Editor at USAK
Gülay Mutlu, Researcher at the USAK Center for Eurasian Studies and the Editor of USAK’s official website.