Learning From Kazakhstan: Making Nuclear Weapons Safer for the World

August 27, 2019
Learning From Kazakhstan: Making Nuclear Weapons Safer for the World
Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM via AP
Learning From Kazakhstan: Making Nuclear Weapons Safer for the World
Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM via AP
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Russia’s recent nuclear disaster’s impact transcends its borders.  The information about an alleged nuclear powered and nuclear-capable weapon’s test going awry in the White Sea in Russia’s North trickled slowly. Whether or not the weapon in question was the nuclear-powered cruise missile, Burevestnik (Storm Petrel), or a nuclear anti-ship missile like the Tsirkon (Zircon), this weapon was expressly invented to circumvent U.S. missile defenses and existing arms control treaties. 

Like the Novator missile that caused the demise of the INF treaty, the deadly weapons systems represent Russia’s belief that the U.S. is conspiring to attack it, and that Moscow’s existing nuclear weapons cannot adequately defend Russia.  The result so far has been the shredding of the previously existing arms control regime and mounting threats to Russia’s people and environment. 

Neither is Moscow the only state shredding arms control.  China is building more nuclear weapons than ever before, eschews participation in arms control talks, and avoids providing a verifiable basis for estimating its true nuclear capabilities. 

Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine openly advocates first strike if attacked conventionally and exploits that threat to launch terrorist attacks on India. 

India is periodically tempted to retaliate conventionally against Pakistan or find ways to preempt its nuclear weapons, an inclination that only leads Pakistan to search for ways to preempt India. 

Iran, evidently, is rebuilding its nuclear capabilities despite the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) it signed in 2015.  North Korea, if anything, is busily enhancing its overall missile capabilities, and has refused to take any credible or meaningful action to denuclearize.  Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that U.S. policymakers will modernize America’s nuclear deterrent.  Indeed, they have already begun doing so.  

The recent Russian tragedy also reveals Moscow’s challenges with regard to nuclear and weapons safety.  It is the third major disaster this summer, the other two being the ammunition dump explosion that was left to burn for days at Achinsk in Siberia, the sinking of the Losharik super-secret submarine with 14 senior naval officials aboard, including seven Navy captains. 

Not enough people have learned the lessons of Chernobyl or any of the preceding catastrophes.  And given the opacity of North Korean, Chinese, Iranian, and Pakistani nuclear programs, nobody can be sure of their systems’ nuclear safety.

But not only has Russia and other powers failed to learn from Chernobyl.  They have failed to learn from the positive experience of Kazakhstan regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear safety.  As the International Day Against Nuclear Tests on August 29 approaches, the necessity of reinvesting in nuclear safety, and developing policies for the 21st-century arms control should become obvious to international audiences. Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev has made this date, the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear test, into this day of remembrance after its years of suffering caused by nuclear tests and accompanying lack of safeguards.

These Soviet tests released radioactive gases xenon and krypton, caused spikes in thyroid cancer across Kazakhstan, led to thousands of premature deaths, cancer, genetic diseases, and impotence.  These tests and other Soviet policies also blasted the environment of Kazakhstan and for that matter of other parts of the Soviet Union, not least today’s Russian Federation. 

Kazakhstan’s enduring revulsion against these tests led it to take a leadership position in

nonproliferation and safe nuclear energy.  Kazakhstan now hosts the IAEA’s Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank. It is a facility for IAEA members in case the supply of LEU to a nuclear power plant is disrupted due to exceptional circumstances, and the member state is unable to secure LEU from the commercial market. The members can approach IAEA without needing to build their own fuel cycles. 

Kazakhstan also pioneered international scientific cooperation in peaceful nuclear energy, and in 2015-2017 co-chaired with Japan the Preparatory Conference on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) even though it is not yet in force.  In other words, Kazakhstan is an acknowledged global leader regarding the safe use of nuclear power and led the way in keeping Central Asia free of nuclear weapons, a goal now shared by all five Central Asian states.

These issues come to the fore since Lt. General Robert Ashley Jr., Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has hinted that U.S. intelligence believes Russia is violating the CTBT criteria by conducting low yield nuclear weapons testing or at least preparing to do so. The U.S. has signed the Treaty but not ratified.  Therefore restoring verification of testing, by international adoption of CTBT and leading the campaign to increase verifiable global nuclear safety standards becomes an acute need. Indeed, Moscow’s alleged nuclear-powered missile text in the Arctic, coupled with the dangers of ongoing exploitation of this region and global climate change, could, over time, transform the Arctic into a second Kazakhstan, repeating the Soviet environmental nuclear disasters of 1949-91.

These episodes highlight the urgency for Russia and other nuclear powers like China, and proliferators like Iran and North Korea, to learn from Kazakhstan – and to save and extend the START III Treaty, preferably adding China to it.  And if they cannot fully abandon nuclear weapons, then at least on August 29, the International Day Against Nuclear Tests, we too should learn from Kazakhstan and carry the banner of global standards for nuclear safety into the international arena.

Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow and resident Russia expert at the American Foreign Policy Council. Previously, he worked as a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. Government.

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