The Atomic Supermarket

Is an international nuclear-storage facility in Kazakhstan the solution to the world’s nuclear-proliferation problem?

Is Kazakhstan the answer to the world's nuclear-proliferation problems? Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev would like to think so. When he met with Barack Obama on April 11 in Washington, one of the issues the two leaders discussed was Kazakhstan's offer to host an International Nuclear Fuel Bank. The joint statement issued after the meeting noted that Obama thanked Nazarbayev for the offer, but didn't offer any firm commitments favoring the idea. The president's cautious approach reflects the benefits and possible dangers of placing such a repository in Kazakhstan.

President Obama has endorsed the concept of establishing at least one multinational nuclear-fuel bank, as have many other foreign governments, nuclear-arms control groups, and the IAEA itself. The idea is that countries can "borrow" any fuel they might need for a civilian nuclear-power program from an international uranium-fuel repository rather than engage in the costly and complex process of making their own-which could be used to make atomic bombs. The hope is that such an institution would decrease incentives for many countries to acquire their own uranium-enrichment capabilities and help curb nuclear proliferation.

Iran in particular was seen as a poster child for why such a program was a good idea: the bank's sponsors hoped it could help contain the country's nuclear program. Tehran insisted on its right to enrich uranium, while the international community demanded that Iran refrain from doing so. Permitting Iranian scientists to take part in advanced nuclear activities-but only under international supervision and in a facility where they would not have access to the most sensitive nuclear technologies that might be used for making weapons-was seen as a possible solution to the dispute. It was for this reason that Nazarbaev first made public Kazakhstan's support for hosting such a bank in April 2009, at a joint press conference with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was then visiting Astana.

Though the proposal hasn't stopped Tehran's atomic ambitions, there are advantages in locating a nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan. The country is becoming a lead player in the world's market for uranium fuel. It has about one-sixth of the stocks of the world's proven reserves of natural uranium. Last year, Kazakhstan produced more uranium than any other country, raising its national output by a remarkable 63 percent over its 2008 production. The government wants the country's state-owned nuclear industry to become the single largest global miner and exporter of natural uranium as well as a major world supplier of other nuclear services. In recent years, the company has negotiated several important joint ventures aiming to develop its national capacity with firms from China, Japan, Russia and other countries. Kazakhstan eventually would like to establish a comprehensive nuclear-fuel service center that, besides enriching uranium, could also store or reprocess the spent fuel from nuclear reactors, store nuclear waste in secure facilities, and sell nuclear reactors and other nuclear-energy technologies.

Furthermore, Kazakhstan has built a strong nonproliferation record during its two decades of independence. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazakhstan destroyed or relocated to Russia all the nuclear weapons that remained on its soil following the USSR's demise. Kazakhstan has also acceded to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state. It has negotiated both a standard safeguards agreement with the IAEA and adopted the agency's more demanding Additional Protocol, which allows the IAEA to monitor and inspect a wider range of possible nuclear activities. Kazakh authorities have worked with the agency as well as the U.S. government to strengthen the safety and security of Kazakhstan's growing civilian nuclear energy program. Kazakhstan has joined the recently created Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, which obligates its nationals not to research, develop, manufacture, stockpile or otherwise attempt to obtain a nuclear-explosive device. Kazakhstan has also joined various WMD export-control bodies such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which aim to restrict the export of sensitive technologies that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, the Kazakh government's longstanding "multi-vector" policy of seeking good relations with all countries should make foreign governments more comfortable about relying on nuclear fuel manufactured in Kazakhstan. Thus far, several countries have refused to renounce pursuing domestic nuclear-enrichment capabilities, despite proliferation concerns, because they fear relying on foreign nuclear-fuel suppliers that might cut-off their supplies over political disputes or other issues unrelated to their failure to meet their nonproliferation obligations. Kazakh officials have strived to demonstrate their reliability as uranium suppliers and have consistently backed the right of other countries to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Nonetheless, a Kazakh international nuclear-fuel repository isn't a panacea, and presents some potential problems. In Kazakhstan, popular concerns about expanding the country's nuclear activities are widespread due to how the country was exploited during the Soviet period as a testbed for hundreds of nuclear explosions. Parts of eastern Kazakhstan around the former Soviet test site of Semipalatinsk remain heavily polluted and environmental contamination has left thousands of Kazakhs extremely ill. Kazakhs worry that their nuclear industry will again downplay environmental and ecological risks in their rush to expand the country's dangerous nuclear activities.