New partnerships will be required to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons

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The Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan. [Ben Dalton/Flickr]

As nuclear power begins to take off in the developing world, the UN’s uranium bank in Kazakhstan will play an increasingly important role in preventing the spread of enrichment technology and ensuring security, writes Almaz Khamzayev.

Almaz Khamzayev is Kazakhstan’s ambassador in Brussels.

Last week was a significant time for Kazakhstan. As many know, 29 August has special importance in Kazakhstan because it is recognised by the United Nations as the International Day against Nuclear Testing. The day acknowledges the suffering experienced by the Kazakh people as a result of two generations of nuclear weapons testing by the Soviet Union. The day, which this year was marked by a minute of silence observed around the globe, specifically commemorates the closure of the last Soviet testing facility on Kazakh soil.

Last week was also a historic moment for the fight against nuclear proliferation. On 27 August, the Republic of Kazakhstan and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) signed an agreement that will offer a new tool for efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology. The agreement authorises the world’s first depository of low enriched uranium that will be made available to fuel nuclear power stations. This low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel bank will be located in Kazakhstan, but it will be administered by the IAEA. 

The international community has long understood that the spread of uranium enrichment technology poses a key threat.  Once a country has enrichment capability, the path to creating weapons-grade uranium is a short one. And it is highly enriched uranium that is the most likely path to a weapon for most nation states and possibly non-state actors.

The IAEA LEU Bank in Kazakhstan will help to address exactly that. The international community has long aspired to create an LEU Bank under the control of the United Nations. An LEU Bank is the supplier of last resort if a country’s nuclear energy program loses access to the nuclear fuel market for any reason, including political reasons.

As a trusted and independent party, the IAEA will now be able to make fuel available under normal commercial terms for any country in good standing. Countries will have a new assurance that their investment in nuclear energy is secure without having to create costly and destabilising enrichment programs of their own. Indeed, it will be more difficult for any country to claim that enrichment is needed.

However, to succeed, the LEU Bank must have broad support from the international community. Because the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognises the right of each country to develop nuclear energy, which includes the right to enrich uranium, we must rely on persuasion and reassurance rather than mandates to accomplish this. 

The LEU Fuel Bank also suggests a new model for cooperation. Improving nuclear security in the future will require the engagement of countries both big and small. The success of this initiative began with a contribution by American investor Warren Buffet and was joined by contributions from an unlikely coalition of countries, including the European Union, Norway, The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and the United States. In fact, the EU pledged up to €25 million out of the project’s total budget of €133 million.

For Kazakhstan, achieving success with an LEU Bank is an important step in our 25 year effort to solve nuclear problems. Opposition to nuclear testing grew in Kazakhstan even before independence from the Soviet Union. Few remember that President Nursultan Nazarbayev defied the Soviet military by informing them that the Kazakh people would not accept more nuclear testing, having suffered greatly from it.

With Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 came the world’s fourth largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. While some suggested retaining weapons to ensure our security, President Nazarbayev campaigned to renounce these weapons completely. 

In the end, working with the United States and Russia, we ensured a transfer of over 1,000 warheads to the Russian Federation for further decommissioning and, of the remaining stocks of weapons-grade material to the United States where it was further down blended and used to power civilian nuclear reactors. President Nazarbayev set a course where our security was found through engagement, not the possession of weapons of mass destruction.

The LEU Bank also comes at a time when the world is engaged in serious discussions over climate change. Though controversial, most projections indicate that nuclear energy will expand dramatically as a source of carbon-free energy.  66 new nuclear plants are under construction. 186 are planned. 322 more have been proposed.  Many of these new plants are in the developing world where governments hope modern energy infrastructure will improve the lives of their people. These new plants, however, will pose a significant risk if they are accompanied by enrichment programs.

The LEU Bank is an important step, but more must now be done.  As nuclear energy expands, so too must the capabilities of the international community to control the movement of nuclear materials. This will take the engagement of new coalitions of countries and renewed political will by established institutions, such as the UN and the EU.

The support by the European Union in establishing the LEU Fuel Bank was essential. Kazakhstan embraces its responsibility to assist in the future.

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