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Kazakhstan: Washington, Astana Announce Nonproliferation Program

  • Antoine Blua

In Washington yesterday (30 January), U.S. and Kazakh officials announced a nuclear nonproliferation program that will help convert a former nuclear weapons plant in Kazakhstan into a viable civilian enterprise. Under the program, the Kazakh plant will turn concentrated uranium into fuel for commercial power reactors. Officials from both countries are hailing the agreement as an important step toward making the world safe from nuclear terrorists.

Prague, 31 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States and Kazakhstan yesterday (30 January) unveiled a joint venture aimed at processing uranium concentrates for use as fuel in commercial nuclear reactors.

The venture calls for concentrated uranium in the U.S. to be converted to fuel for use around the world. The middleman in the process is the Ulba metallurgical plant in eastern Kazakhstan -- a major hub of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program. Dormant since the collapse of the USSR, the Ulba plant will now use a patented solvent extraction process to recover low-enriched uranium that can then be used in the manufacture of fuel rods.

The American partner in the venture is North Carolina-based Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF), a joint subsidiary of the General Electric, Hitachi, and Toshiba companies. GNF will both supply the uranium concentrates to Ulba and use the fuel, once converted, to make fuel rods for sale to nuclear power plants worldwide. Officials from the Kazakh Embassy in Washington say GNF has pledged to invest $3 million into the project over the next three years, and has already committed half that amount.

The project also has technical and management support from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Nukem uranium trading company. The DOE has committed an additional $1.2 million to the project as part of its nonproliferation initiatives.

Victor Alessi is president of the U.S. Industry Coalition, a nonprofit association dedicated to nonproliferation and the commercialization of technologies for peaceful purposes. Alessi, whose group helped broker the U.S.-Kazakh deal, spoke at a news conference yesterday announcing the new venture. He said the project will provide immediate employment for 50 former Soviet weapons specialists in Kazakhstan, with more jobs becoming available later.

"Under this project, we hope eventually to provide jobs for hundreds of former Soviet nuclear weapons scientists, engineers, and technicians in Kazakhstan."

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham likewise praised the project, saying it will play an important role in U.S. global nonproliferation efforts.

"And it's also part of our larger national effort, articulated so well by [President George W. Bush] last night in his [State of the Union] address before the nation, when he said that the United States will work closely with our [international] coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the material, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction."

Kanat Saudabaev is Kazakhstan's ambassador in Washington. Speaking at the news conference, Saudabaev reiterated that the joint project gained particular significance after 11 September.

"After the tragic events of 11 September, the issue of nonproliferation has acquired a new urgency, and one can only imagine how great the scope of this tragedy could have been had the terrorists acquired weapons of mass destruction of one kind or another."

The project also means a considerable boost in trade ties between the two countries. Kazakh Embassy officials say the project is the first time that Kazakhstan, since gaining independence in 1991, has contributed more than just raw materials to a commercial partnership -- namely, the new Kazakh extraction process.

Although no details are available about the commercial value of the converted uranium fuel, sources close to the project say it is broad in scope, potentially involving "dozens of tons" of uranium concentrates.

Andrew Weiss is a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and former director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council. He tells RFE/RL that yesterday's announcement is "entirely consistent" with U.S. nonproliferation policy over the past decade.

"I wouldn't think that [the project] breaks much new ground except [to demonstrate] that there are potential commercial solutions to some of our nonproliferation challenges. In the past, a lot of what we focused on was more about noncommercial solutions to problems -- where we either helped secure materials which had inadequate safeguards or spirited them away to safekeeping in other countries such as the United States."

Weiss says he considers the project a "good sign" for future potential cooperation between the U.S. and Kazakhstan. He also said it comes at an appropriate time, as the Bush administration works to solidify its international antiterrorism coalition.

"I think that [the project] has a lot to do with making sure that the whole range of activities in the nuclear area that are going on in Kazakhstan will be strengthened in terms of there being new sources of income and revenue potentially, but also that it shows that there is a close cooperation and partnership emerging between the United States and Kazakhstan."

When President Bush met with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Washington in December, the two leaders discussed Kazakhstan's new role in world energy matters, as well as the campaign against terrorism. The meeting resulted in a joint statement affirming strategic partnership and the intention of the U.S. in helping Kazakhstan to integrate more fully into the global economy.

Kazakhstan has played a significant role in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it volunteered to return all nuclear weapons to Russia, signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and removed all nuclear weapons from its territory.

In 1998, in response to U.S. intelligence suspicions that Iran was attempting to purchase weapons-grade uranium from the Ulba plant, Kazakhstan cooperated with the U.S. government to remove these materials from former Soviet ballistic missiles and put them under U.S. control.

(RFE/RL Washington correspondent Andrew Tully contributed to this report. English translation from Kazakh provided by Saudabaev's interpreter.)