Waverley: New Opportunities for Nuclear Security

Posted April 14, 2010 at 10:57am

This week, 47 countries are gathering in Washington, D.C., for the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by President Barack Obama, among them the United Kingdom. The summit, followed by the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May, provides an important springboard to reinforce global efforts to combat the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials.

[IMGCAP(1)]Effective deterrent and policing measures are urgently needed to criminalize illicit trade of nuclear weapons and materials together with stiffer consequences for noncompliance by state actors. Last week’s signing in Prague of a new nuclear reduction treaty by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reverses the erosion or expiration of cornerstone treaties and verification regimes negotiated by decades of civil servants and military officials. The 30 percent reduction in nuclear warheads Russia agreed to, together with the White House announcement of new policy commitments to restrict the use of nuclear weapons and move toward a nuclear-free world give fresh hope after a period of stagnation in this area. Galvanized by a wide range of concerns including Iran’s nuclear programs and the need for immediate and stronger mechanisms to prevent access by non-state and terrorist groups to nuclear weapons, global leaders are coming to the table with a new sense of purpose.

While global nuclear disarmament remains a long-term aspiration rather than anything more immediate, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon gave a vivid reminder this week that unilateral nuclear disarmament took place on a significant scale after the collapse of the USSR. Visiting Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk, the center of all former Soviet nuclear testing and the core of its nuclear military-industrial complex, Ban praised President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s visionary leadership in renouncing the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in 1991 and decommissioning Semipalatinsk, and for pioneering a Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone.

Kazakhstan’s decision to declare and remove, rather than to ship and sell, its later discovery of a sizable cache of weapons-grade uranium that Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Director Graham Allison called “sufficient for production of 100 additional nuclear weapons,” sets another example that is likely to be unprecedented in the history of arms control. This also explains why Ban urged President Nazarbayev to step forward as “the strongest moral voice,” one who answered public opinion and a nationwide popular movement (the largest anti-nuclear-weapons movement in history) after suffering decades of testing fallout, instead of numerous, generous offers to purchase materials and technology.

This material was successfully removed in the early 1990s in a made-for-cinema initiative called Operation Sapphire, conducted in consultation with Russia and the United States to transfer and safeguard fissile materials for storage. The lives lost or dedicated quietly by Kazakhstan, for little political or financial gain, in its long march toward denuclearization merit greater recognition than they have so far received by the outside world.

The significance of these choices cannot be overestimated. Even a small portion of what Kazakhstan transferred to safekeeping would, in the wrong hands, have leveled Manhattan rather than just the World Trade Center on 9/11. Kazakhstan remains one of the few examples that revive and live up to the spirit of the Pugwash Conferences founded by Nobel scientists Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Joseph Rotblat and others, days before Einstein’s death as a parting gift to rein in the weapons of mass destruction that scientists had created, even if they could not admittedly put that genie back into the bottle.

Often overlooked, Central Asia’s Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone is one of five nuclear-free zones globally, with Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and Africa. All five Central Asian states committed themselves in 2006 not to manufacture, acquire, test or possess nuclear weapons over the region’s 4 million square kilometers — notable for a region that borders Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The legitimate use of nuclear fuel for peaceful energy needs remains among the most critical issues on the nonproliferation agenda. Global leaders must consider swift and resolute action on the proposal to establish an international nuclear fuel bank under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This would allow many countries to pursue legitimate energy requirements and gain access to nuclear fuel without the need to carry out domestic enrichment or reprocessing, with all the security concerns that follow. Failure to put in place logical mechanisms to structure the development of peaceful uses of nuclear energy penalizes the responsible state actors seeking to use nuclear fuel for legitimate purposes and slows global cooperation on stringent safety mechanisms and prerequisite controls.

Kazakhstan, the world’s largest producer of uranium, has offered to host the nuclear fuel bank as a secure and open global resource. As part of its efforts to strengthen the NPT, it has pushed for adoption of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, an international treaty to prohibit the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices and might usefully address the future of more than 2,000 tons of fissile material lying unused around the world.

As the international community looks at these issues over the coming days and weeks, Kazakhstan’s leadership role in the area of nonproliferation merits close attention.

J.D. Waverley is a member of the House of Lords in Great Britain and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.