Kazakhstan’s firm commitment to nuclear security was reiterated in the country’s new Foreign Policy Concept adopted earlier this year. The strategic document states that Kazakhstan “puts all efforts into achieving a world order free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, participates in the development of multilateral mechanisms for both a comprehensive ban on such weapons and their destruction, as well as in the creation of zones free of nuclear weapons.”
Despite being a relatively young country, Kazakhstan possesses solid experience in nuclear disarmament. Since gaining its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has consistently contributed to global nuclear security across a wide range of processes. The country is justifiably touted as one of the world’s leaders in global efforts toward nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament and ensuring the security of nuclear materials. This role was gained after a number of bold operations implemented during its first two decades of independence.
Closing the Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site was the first step toward what has now become Kazakhstan’s solid track record of important nuclear disarmament projects and initiatives. From 1949-89, the former Soviet Union conducted about 460 nuclear weapons tests at the test site. These included 117 explosions that were conducted aboveground or in the atmosphere. As a result of the tests, the environment was seriously contaminated with radioactive fallout. Even after a generation, the radioactive material continues to negatively affect the health of the local population.
In 1991, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine signed the Almaty Declaration on Strategic Nuclear Forces, which defined the mechanism of joint control over the maintenance of nuclear security and confirmed their adherence to international obligations regarding the reduction of strategic offensive arms.
Subsequently, Kazakhstan acceded to multiple protocols and treaties which ensured its commitment to denuclearisation and nonproliferation. Among these international documents are the Lisbon Protocol to the START 1 Treaty, the Nonproliferation Treaty, the Convention on Nuclear Safety, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Chemical Weapon Convention, the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency, the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.
Soon after announcing the renunciation of its nuclear arsenal in the early 1990s, Kazakhstan faced the challenge of destroying nuclear weapons infrastructure on its territory and converting former military production installations to civil purposes. With the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United States, the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation, among other countries, Kazakhstan implemented large-scale operations at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and other nuclear facilities.
In the early 1990s, Kazakhstan began participating in the U.S.-funded Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Programme aimed at destroying and disinfecting the infrastructure and apparatuses of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons remaining in the country, dismantling strategic offensive arms, creating an export control system, improving management and control over nuclear materials and converting its defense industry. The effort spanned over more than two decades and continues to this day with projects relating to improving the security of nuclear materials.
In 1994, Kazakhstan became a member of the IAEA and signed the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Based on the agreement, all nuclear facilities were placed under IAEA safeguards and Kazakhstan signed up to carry out all its nuclear activities according to IAEA rules and standards. During the 1990s, Kazakhstan, with the support of the IAEA, strengthened its national radiation protection infrastructure, particularly its environmental monitoring. Joint efforts identified the most likely areas of radioactive contamination at the Semipalatinsk test site.
The year of 1994 saw the successful completion of a joint Kazakhstan-U.S. operation codenamed Project Sapphire, which secretly transported around 600 kilogrammes of weapons grade uranium from Ust-Kamenogorsk to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. About 25 nuclear bombs worth of material was later converted and used for the production of peaceful atomic energy.
Kazakhstan has had a tangible achievement in downgrading highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU) for peaceful purposes. In 2001, Kazakhstan and the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) jointly implemented a project to downgrade 2,897 kilogrammes of HEU – sufficient for producing a number of nuclear bombs – to LEU and place it in safe storage. In 2005, then IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed El Baradei said the project demonstrated the feasibility of developing complex engineering and organisational solutions for converting HEU into commercially valuable material not directly usable in nuclear weapons. According to the IAEA, the NTI-Kazakhstan effort could well serve as a model for future projects in other countries.
Kazakhstan, the U.S. Department of Energy and NTI also concluded another project in 2006 where large quantity of highly enriched uranium was downblended at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk.
Regarding the secure export of nuclear materials, in 2002, Kazakhstan became the 40th member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Within the NSG, Kazakhstan is committed to serious measures against terrorism, to counteracting nuclear proliferation and to strengthening control over the use and movement of nuclear materials and the production of dual-purpose materials.
Along with four other neighbouring countries, Kazakhstan initiated the establishment of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Central Asia by 2009. One of its intended purposes is to further reinforce nuclear security, prevent illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and combat nuclear terrorism.
In 2010 and 2012, two important projects were carried out further ensuring the security of nuclear materials in Kazakhstan. One involved the transportation of tons of spent nuclear fuel from Aktau for safe storage at the former Semipalatinsk test site, and the other involving ensuring the security of nuclear materials at the test site’s Degelen Massif. Conducted in close cooperation with the United States and Russia and the IAEA, the projects contributed to securing dozens of nuclear weapons worth of nuclear materials, earning praise from leaders from throughout the world.
Kazakhstan has also undertaken efforts to support UN Security Council Resolution 1540, including by hosting regional seminars in 2011 and on March 11-12 this year focusing on efforts by more than 30 countries to ensure stronger control in the area of non-proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Kazakhstan has also put its candidacy forward for hosting the IAEA LEU bank on its territory. Complex negotiations between Kazakhstan and the IAEA on this project are underway and are reportedly nearing completion. Once established, the bank would become another element in ensuring the stability of the international nuclear fuel cycle, contributing indirectly to the goals of nuclear non-proliferation.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev is scheduled to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on March 24-25 this year. There, he will yet again express the country’s firm commitment to creating a world where nuclear materials are safe and which is free from the threat of nuclear weapons. His report is expected to illustrate Kazakhstan’s recent achievements in nonproliferation activities, including institutional development in nuclear materials security. The report is also expected to reflect how Kazakhstan evaluates the recent challenges posed by the increasing number of countries wishing to develop nuclear energy technologies, challenges that include balancing sensitive transportation issues against the threat of nuclear terrorism. Importantly, the report is also expected to contain Kazakhstan’s concrete proposals to answer current and future nuclear security challenges.