Since 1990s, Kazakhstan has always been in the forefront of activities related to nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear security in Central Asia as the region faced many common problems inherited from the Soviet-era military programs, as well as new threats, such as illicit trafficking in nuclear and radioactive materials. Having disposed of the USSR’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states, however, have not been quite successful in resolving the problems related to the health and environmental damage caused by the Soviet military-industrial complex, while addressing emerging security challenges turned out to be complicated due to porous borders, lack of interstate cooperation, transnational organized crime, relatively weak law-enforcement capabilities, endemic corruption, and other factors. The Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone established in September 2006 was expected to step up regional nuclear security cooperation, but its potential is yet to be fully realized due to the absence of practical collaboration and implementation mechanisms.
Nevertheless, Kazakhstan continues to demonstrate its strong commitment to nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and security, as evidenced by its January 2018 presidency agenda in the United Nations Security Council, and remains an active proponent of closer interaction in this field at the regional level. In May 2017, Kazakhstan, with financial, technical and expert support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, inaugurated the regional Nuclear Security Training Center constructed at a site directly adjacent to the Institute of Nuclear Physics located in the village of Alatau, about 20 km from Almaty. To date, not every Central Asian state has treated nuclear security education as an important priority, and the new center is designed to fill this void by offering specialized training courses and programs for officials and personnel working at the relevant government agencies, nuclear research centers and industry facilities of Kazakhstan and its regional neighbors, as well as for specialists from international nuclear entities and organizations. The center’s curriculum includes introductory and advanced nuclear security topics and best practices, including physical protection, nuclear material accounting and control systems, response measures, and secure transportation (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, 2017). It is worth noting that President Nazarbayev announced Kazakhstan’s intention to establish a regional nuclear security training center at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington (U.S. Department of State, 2010).
In addition to professional education and training, there are a number of activities that Kazakhstan and its Central Asian partners should undertake to mitigate nuclear security related risks. As part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, multiple projects have been implemented in the region in such areas as making technological upgrades, improving protection, control, and accounting systems for nuclear and radioactive materials, and strengthening security measures at nuclear industry facilities. It would seem that all these improvements, along with increased protection of nuclear facilities by law-enforcement agencies, have minimized external threats, including the threat of a direct attack by terrorists. However, technical weaknesses in safety and security systems of nuclear facilities, as well as shortcomings in personnel training and emergency response procedures, make these facilities vulnerable not only to natural disasters and emergencies, but also to break-ins, theft, and sabotage (Bunn, 2011). Thus, there is an obvious need to cooperate in further modernizing security and physical-protection systems as well as improving security culture at nuclear installations, research centers and industrial facilities of the Central Asian countries.
In recent years, radiological security has become a subject of growing international concern and is regarded as part of the general nuclear-security agenda, given the growing risks associated with a possible use of radioactive materials by terrorists. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian states lost control of some of the radiation sources used for military, industrial, medical, and research purposes. These sources contain highly radioactive materials, including cesium-137, strontium-90, cobalt-60, and iridium-192, which could be used to build radiological dispersal devices, or a so-called dirty bombs, if they fell into the wrong hands (Plugatarev, 2007). While dirty bombs do not have the capability to inflict mass casualties or serious destruction, they can cause radioactive contamination of large territories, leading to public-health risks and lost economic opportunities. The risk of such terrorist attacks is fairly high, due to the relatively easy availability of radioactive materials and the simplicity of dirty-bomb designs. Furthermore, sources of radiation can be very small and compact, making them easy to transport and smuggle across the borders. That necessitates close cooperation between Kazakhstan and its regional partners in ensuring the timely detection and interdiction of radioactive contraband, including in equipping border crossings and other strategic locations with radiation detectors. On the national level, the Central Asian governments must take further steps to strengthen the legislative and regulatory framework for the registration and use of radioactive materials, including the introduction of modern control and accounting systems that track radiation sources throughout their operational lifetimes, as well as the adoption of harsher penalties for their theft or improper use.
Another potential threat is the possibility of Central Asia being used as a transit route for illicit transfers of nuclear and other WMD-related materials, technologies, and equipment. The trafficking routes can be largely the same as the ones used to smuggle drugs out of Afghanistan to Europe. But illicit activities can also be disguised as legal commercial operations, with sensitive equipment and technologies, dual-use products, and fissile materials being purchased by front companies or brokerages. To date, there have been no confirmed cases of highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium being smuggled via Central Asia. However, the regional authorities have registered numerous cases where cargos containing radiation sources or radioactive scrap metal were interdicted (Hanley, 2002). Paradoxically, the Eurasian Economic Union comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia, while facilitating free trade of goods across borders, could also create opportunities for increased transnational crime, including trafficking activities, by removing customs controls on the Union’s internal borders. Although much progress has been achieved in securing and guarding the national borders in Central Asia, the regional law-enforcement, intelligence, and security services should pursue more active cooperation and information exchange with their foreign counterparts. The Central Asian countries should also continue the practice of joint anti-terrorism and interdiction exercises not only in the frameworks of the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but also on bilateral and regional bases.
Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states, in cooperation with the United States, Russia, and other interested parties, have made significant progress in reducing nuclear security related threats, but more work remains to be done. The confrontation between the West and Russia has effectively stalled international cooperation in this area in Central Asia, but the regional states have a clear interest in mutual collaboration on the entire range of nuclear security issues. Such cooperation would not only help them resolve the problems they inherited from the Soviet Union, but also develop adequate responses to the present-day challenges and threats. To increase the effectiveness and sustainability of regional cooperation, it would be useful to engage interested international stakeholders as the Central Asian countries still need political, technical, financial and expert support. This will contribute to the reduction of risks related to nuclear terrorism and illicit trafficking in sensitive materials, technologies, and equipment, thus benefitting both the region and the global community.
U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration. (2017). Nuclear Security Training Center Opens in Kazakhstan. Retrieved from https://nnsa.energy.gov/mediaroom/pressreleases/nuclear-security-trainin…. Accessed on 20.02.2018.
U.S. Department of State. (2010). National Statement by the Republic of Kazakhstan at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. Retrieved from https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/246978.pdf. Accessed on 20.01.2018.
Bunn, Matthew. (2011). The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism: What’s New? What’s True? Retrieved from https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/theth…. Accessed on 21.02.2018.
Plugatarev, Igor. (2007). ‘Gryaznaya bomba’ iz tsentralnoaziatskogo urana. Retrieved from http://nvo.ng.ru/wars/2007-09-21/2_bomb.html. Accessed on 21.02.2018.
Hanley, Charles J. (2002). Central Asia is a Hotbed for Radioactive Smuggling. Retrieved from https://www.deseretnews.com/article/919828/Central-Asia-is-a-hotbed-for-…. Accessed on 21.02.2018.
*Published in the March 2018 No. 27 issue of the “Asya Avrupa: Haber-Yorum” journal.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dauren Aben holds a Master’s in International Relations from Kainar University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a Master’s in International Policy Studies and certificates in nonproliferation studies, conflict resolution, and commercial diplomacy from the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies. Dauren previously worked as a senior project manager and researcher at the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education. In 2011-2014, he worked as a senior research fellow at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. In 2008-20