By Gülay Mutlu
Today, the 29th of August, was declared as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests after the Republic of Kazakhstan’s resolution for such a signification was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2009. This initiative, as well as the fact that Kazakhstan was its initiator, carries a powerful meaning considering that the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in northeastern Kazakhstan, also simply known as “the Polygon”, still affects the lives of those people living in its vicinity. Decades after the last nuclear weapons test to have occurred there, residual radioactive nuclear fallout has caused those living in or near the site to have suffered from abnormally high rates of certain types of cancer and various other physical health defects.
The President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev closed all infrastructures to test nuclear weapons on the heels of the country’s acquisition of independence. As we observe today’s special occasion, it should also be remembered that 29 August remains symbolic, as it signifies the day of the first of 456 nuclear tests that were conducted at Semipalatinsk since 1949. Moreover, it deserves note that most of the weapons tested at the site at hand exhibited explosive powers estimated to be 2,500 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
After closing the Polygon, Kazakhstan began an effective lobbying campaign within the international arena to eliminate nuclear weapons (at least within its region), eventually winning the support of the United Nations as well as many of its individual Member States, various intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, youth networks, and a host of media outlets. Ultimately, Astana successfully led the charge to create a nuclear weapons free zone in Central Asia, a task that became a reality when the Central Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (CANWFZ) entered into force on 21 March 2009. Moreover the ATOM Project, again initiated by Astana, was launched in the same year in an effort to raise awareness about the human and environmental devastation that can be caused by nuclear weapons.
IAEA Low-Enriched Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan
Two days ago, on 27 August, after three years of “constructive negotiations”, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov, Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik as well as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano signed a “Host State Agreement” to establish an IAEA low enriched uranium (LEU) bank at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen, Kazakhstan.
With the agreement, Astana volunteered to host and operate a facility that will store LEU to be ultimately utilized in the fabrication of fuel for nuclear power reactors. The agreement was described as a “milestone” by Amano at the signing ceremony, during which he also went on to say that “the IAEA LEU Bank will be owned and controlled by the Agency for 10 years, but operated by Kazakhstan.” The site of the Bank, the Ulba Metallurgical Plant, has been safely and securely handling nuclear materials such as LEU for over 60 years.
Throughout the signing ceremony, the message that the LEU Bank embodies a global consensus on the civil and peaceful use of nuclear materials, as opposed to the enrichment of fissile materials for military purposes, was a continued theme. Here, four countries that donated to the project, namely the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Norway as well as Kazakh, Chinese, Russian, and EU representatives all highlighted the importance of the Bank in this regard.
During the signing ceremony, the Director General of the IAEA and the Kazakh Foreign Minister firstly highlighted that the LEU Bank would operate in accordance with local and international law while also maintaining the highest standard of security thanks to the provision of new advanced technological infrastructure by the IAEA. Secondly, they stated that the LEU Bank would work to supply and safeguard the materials needed to advance peaceful nuclear energy to the benefit of mankind i.e. nuclear medicine, agriculture, etc. Thirdly, they articulated that the Bank would support the cause to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as it will fall under the supervision of the IAEA.
Challenges: Bank Security
Despite the lofty rhetoric surrounding the establishment of the new LEU Bank, the facility still faces a few challenges, the most vital of which remains the securement of the Bank from the theft of fissile materials by nuclear terrorists. Addressing this issue, Idrissov contended that nobody is safe from a sudden terrorist attack and that therefore, theoretically, not only Kazakhstan and its LEU Bank but all nuclear plants across the globe face the same threats of terror. With this in mind, the foreign minister went on to emphasize the importance of increasing public awareness on the issue while also highlighting the measures that Astana would take to ensure the security of the Bank. Here, he pointed out his country’s cooperative endeavors to tackle terrorism with fellow members of such regional and international security organizations as the SCO and CSTO.
A Lender of Last Resort
Importantly, the LEU Bank in Ulba could encourage some member countries of the IAEA to forgo the slippery slope of uranium enrichment. While LEU that is used in fabrication of nuclear fuel rods for peaceful energy purposes is enriched to a level of around 5 percent (Kazakhstan enriches its stocks up to a level of 4,8 percent), identical material that is enriched to levels above 20 percent (highly enriched uranium or HEU) is the key ingredient of nuclear weapons. In this regard, the Bank would provide a reserve of LEU for use in nuclear reactors as a last resort, to be tapped when IAEA member states are “unable to secure LEU from the commercial market or by any other means.” The agreement on the LEU Bank was finally signed after three years of intense legal and technical negotiations. Here, the legal framework supporting the Bank should be highlighted so as to display to countries seeking enrichment technology that adherence to international law and procedure in this endeavor should be observed, and that divergence therefrom constitutes illegal activity that works in opposition to peace. It should also be noted that, as the U.S. representative mentioned during his speech at the signing ceremony, Kazakhstan constructively contributed to the Iranian nuclear negotiations, thus exhibiting its positive stance on peaceful nuclear energy and opposition to nuclear proliferation.
With the signing of the final agreement, the involved parties and the IAEA also reached a consensus on the technical details of the project (including the transportation and securement of fissile materials). Here, Amano explained the details in his article published in The Astana Times on 26 August: “…the bank will be a reserve up to 90 metric tons of LEU, the basic ingredient for fabricating nuclear fuel. Stored in secure steel cylinders, the LEU will be suitable for making fuel for a typical light water reactor -the world’s most widely used power reactor- sufficient to guarantee enough electricity for a large city for three years.”
Considering its efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has reached a major milestone with the signing of the LEU Bank agreement. The LEU Bank poses an alternative to paths that could ultimately lead to the enrichment of LEU, it works completely within the confines of international law. As the world’s largest producer of uranium, Kazakhstan has a long history of providing for the security of it nuclear materials as well as an unequaled amount of international support in its 20-year-long mission to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. To sum up, the agreement on Kazakhstan’s LEU Bank represents a defining moment for a country that has long pursued a policy that upholds the principles of nuclear non-proliferation.