Violaine Martin

Kazakhstan Expands its Role in Nuclear Security Issues

On 2 March, Kazakhstan signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), becoming the 57th state to do so. This move completes a first quarter of 2018 which has been very important for Kazakh foreign policy, as in January the country held the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the first Central Asian state to achieve this. Also in January, President Nursultan Nazarbayev met with President Donald Trump in Washington DC to promote U.S.-Kazakh relations.

While global nuclear disarmament remains a utopia, Astana’s signature of the TPNW is an important development and should be put in the context of said country’s nuclear security initiatives and its nuclear energy industry.

Promoting nuclear security

It is well known that the Central Asian nation inherited nuclear-tipped missiles after the collapse of the Soviet Union; Astana would go on to dismantle said weapons systems and facilities and joined agreements like the TPNW. The other post-Soviet Central Asian states carried out similar policies and nowadays there is a Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone treaty.

What is also worth highlighting is Kazakhstan’s interest in promoting nuclear security past its borders. President Nazarbayev has declared, “Kazakhstan’s non-nuclear status can serve as a guiding example for other states. I’m speaking from my personal experience. We created and strengthened our independent country, achieved high international authority, namely, by renouncing nuclear weapons and receiving guarantees of non-aggression from nuclear powers. We urge all countries to follow our example. We urged Iran at the time, now we call on North Korea. Nuclear bombs and missiles are not power.”

While it is unlikely that North Korea (the upcoming meeting between the North Korean and U.S. leaders notwithstanding), and other nuclear states, will give up their nuclear armament anytime soon, Astana’s interest in promoting nuclear security, as well as the recent signing of the TPNW, are commendable initiatives.

Astana, Washington, and nuclear issues

Interestingly, there has been one development in Astana-Washington relations that deals with nuclear security. In May of 2017, a Nuclear Security Training Center (NSTC) opened in the Central Asian state, a joint initiative between Astana and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. A 15 May 2017 press release by the NNSA explains that the center will be utilized to “train nuclear facility personnel in security disciplines, including physical protection systems, nuclear material accounting and control systems, response forces, and secure transportation.”

The two governments also signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement in August. Additionally, Presidents Trump and Nazarbayev praised the 2017 inauguration of a reserve bank for low enriched uranium in the Central Asian state. This initiative “seeks to decrease the risk of nuclear enrichment technology proliferation,” said a White House statement.

Meanwhile, Dr. Richard Weitz from the Hudson Institute in Washington DC explains that “the hope is that countries pursuing peaceful nuclear energy programs will borrow LEU fuel from banks to avoid the ecological and economic expense of manufacturing their own nuclear fuel through uranium enrichment, a technology that can be misused to make nuclear weapons.” In other words, Kazakhstan’s LEU bank could become a centerpiece in the quest for nuclear non-proliferation.

In spite of the current positive momentum after several high-profile visits, it is important to note that U.S.-Kazakh relations over nuclear energy are not free of tensions. Namely, U.S.-based uranium-producing companies Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy have petitioned Washington “to look into whether imports from dominant uranium producers, like Russia [and Kazakhstan], pose a national security risk.” In reality, this request has less to do with “national security” in the traditional sense of the term and has to do more with the fact that the U.S. imports large quantities of uranium, from producers like Kazakhstan, for domestic consumption, which limits the profits of U.S.-based companies. It will be interesting to see if this request, which falls under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, progresses and if it affects U.S. imports of Kazakh uranium, and what effect, if any, could this have on bilateral relations.

Final thoughts

Kazakhstan’s decision to sign the TPNW is a commendable initiative towards global nonproliferation although, sadly, countries that possess nuclear weapons are in no hurry to get rid of them. More important though is Astana’s growing role in nuclear affairs and its rapprochement with Washington on nuclear security and energy issues.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.