Our world, despite the worrying increase in tensions in recent months, has come a long way from the darkest days of the Cold War. Only the most pessimistic of minds believes deliberate nuclear war between East and West is now possible. To those who lived through those very dangerous times, this is a massive step in the right direction.
Sadly, however, this does not mean the nuclear threat has disappeared. There remain other potential regional flashpoints, which we must work harder to defuse. The agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme – in which Kazakhstan played a part – shows what can be achieved through patience, courage and commitment on all sides.
But as fears of nuclear war between states ease, they have been replaced by a more unpredictable but no less terrible danger. It is the risk that such weapons or the material to make them could fall into the hands of extremist groups – and the knowledge that they are seeking them – which is ringing alarm bells across the globe.
While we have seen welcome reductions in nuclear weapons in recent years, there remain 16,000 warheads, enough to destroy the world many times over. An even greater concern is the 2,000 tonnes of plutonium and highly enriched uranium held in hundreds of sites, not all of them fully secure, across the world.
It is the very real risk of this material falling into the wrong hands that led to U.S. President Barack Obama to say in 2009 that nuclear terrorism was the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. His intervention and personal commitment saw the first Nuclear Security Summit to counter this threat held in Washington a year later.
The high-level meeting – and subsequent summits in Seoul and The Hague – paved the way for an unprecedented international focus on securing vulnerable nuclear materials and improved co-operation to crack down on illegal smuggling operations. While there is much work to be done, these efforts have seen the removal of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from 12 countries and more than 20 nuclear facilities as well as improved security at sites around the world and enhanced efforts to seize and prevent the trade in illegally trafficked material.
This is just as well. Even since 2009, we have seen the emergence of more extreme groups with greater resources and ambitions and a terrible appetite for death and destruction. It is all too clear that if they were to obtain or build nuclear weapons they would not hesitate to use them to cause maximum casualties.
It is against this background that the fourth Nuclear Security Summit is taking place in Washington this week. It will bring together the leaders of around 50 countries as well as international organisations to build on the progress made and put together new plans to tackle the threat we face.
Given Kazakhstan’s outstanding contributions to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is likely play an active role again at the meeting as we have since he was invited to participate in the first summit in 2010. The Kazakhs’ determination to do all they can to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons has helped define this country ever since it gained independence nearly 25 years ago.
There is no secret why this issue is so important to the Kazakh people. Over four decades, nearly 500 nuclear explosions were carried out at the Semipalatinsk test site within our borders, often with the minimum of protection.
The result has been lives lost, a legacy of chronic health conditions and terrible and continuing environmental damage. No other country has suffered as badly from the peacetime impact of nuclear weapons.
It was why, even before independence, President Nazarbayev took the historic decision on Aug. 29, 1991 to close the Semipalatinsk site. Months later, the Central Asian country voluntarily renounced what was then the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal. Over the next 10 years, Kazakhstan worked with both the U.S. and Russia experts in a model of international partnership to secure material from the Soviet nuclear programme under the famous Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programme.
Nazarbayev has continued to show a strong lead, through example, commitments and campaigning, in international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, to end nuclear testing and to increase co-operation over nuclear safety issues. This includes agreeing to host the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Low-Enriched Uranium Bank, which will enable countries to develop civilian atomic programmes without having to build facilities to enrich uranium and the creation of a Central Asian Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone.
In the long run, however, the best route to removing the threat to humanity that nuclear weapons pose is to move towards a nuclear weapons-free world. This week’s summit can, through practical measures and improving confidence, help lay the groundwork to bring this ambition closer.
The summit will be the last to be chaired by President Obama whose personal commitment has been so important to countering the threat from nuclear terrorism. But it must not be the end of the global effort. All countries and all our peoples have a critical interest in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and doing everything we can to keep them out of the hands of those who wish us all evil.