Signs are multiplying that nuclear weapons are making a comeback, making the world more dangerous. The Pentagon reports that China is close to building a nuclear triad. Russia is working on 22 different short, intermediate, and long-range nuclear weapons. North Korea shows no sign of denuclearizing. Iran is bringing back its enriched uranium from Russia where it had been stored under the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement (JCPOA). And the Congress has recently approved a massive defense appropriation that includes provisions for new nuclear weapons.
Such developments reflect what many analysts call a new or second Cold War, which may be more dangerous. Multiple nuclear-armed actors create a more unstable international system than the bipolar world of the Cold War.
In this context, the occurrence of the International Day Against Nuclear Tests on August 29 should be an occasion for international sober reflection about nuclear arms control approaches that work, such as the merits of Kazakhstan’s nuclear policy. In fact, Kazakhstan moved to make this date, the anniversary of the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, a holiday against nuclear weapons because it suffered horribly from the Soviet nuclear tests near the city of Semipalatinsk.
These tests led to leakages of radioactive gases xenon and krypton, caused spikes in thyroid cancer across Kazakhstan, and were indirectly or directly responsible for thousands of premature deaths or illnesses including genetic diseases and impotence.
Consequently, Kazakhstan’s enduring revulsion against nuclear tests has led it to become a staunch advocate of denuclearization and opponent of proliferation since it became independent in 1991. Kazakhstan regularly hosts disarmament and anti-proliferation forums, is home to the IAEA’s Low Enriched Uranium Bank that is an assured reserve of nuclear fuel supply to eligible member states.
Additionally, this bank also ensures that states do not have to build their own reactors, or use civilian energy programs as a pretext for covert nuclear weapons programs. In other words, states needing nuclear fuel can reliably approach Kazakhstan without having to build their own fuel cycles. Iran and potentially North Korea come to mind here as potential customers for Low Enriched Uranium if we can preserve Iranian denuclearization and obtain as similar outcome for North Korea.
A generation ago Kazakhstan willingly renounced the Soviet nuclear weapons that had been left on its territory and has instead steadfastly championed nonproliferation initiatives with other nuclear powers, removing excess nuclear fuel from its territory and sponsoring efforts to mediate security rivalries that can give rise to a desire for nuclear weapons.
Kazakhstan has used its national nuclear center as a host for international scientific cooperation. Scientists from Algeria and Japan are working with the center to learn how to eliminate radiation from soil. And U.S. scientists, who have just visited the center, are working with Kazakh scientists to eliminate the after-effects of nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk, results that could be used at other radioactive sites to prevent further damage to people or nature.
To be sure Kazakhstan’s commitment to international cooperation in denuclearization and anti-proliferation activities works to enhance its international influence and is not just altruism. Kazakhstan’s policies have contributed to keeping the peace in Central Asia and shown that new states do not need to go nuclear to be heard in international affairs.
As a leader of the non-proliferation movement, Kazakhstan serves as co-president of the CTBT Conference on Facilitating the Entry into Force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Kazakhstan has also used its membership in the UN and its more recent membership in the UN Security Council to take a strong position on supporting UN Security Council Resolution 1540 enjoining all states to refrain from providing any form of support to non-State actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery, in particular for terrorist purposes.
Furthermore, it is a party to the five-state treaty establishing Central Asia as a nuclear weapons free zone. And in 2017 it awarded King Abdullah II of Jordan the First Nursultan Nazarbayev Prize for a nuclear free world and global security.
At the same time, Kazakhstan’s active commitment to denuclearization and non-proliferation also is the clear result of a national trauma. This trauma reminds us what is at stake globally if we go on adding nuclear weapons to governmental inventories even if they are never used.
The tremendous environmental and ecological risks of nuclear weapons to society and to nature should be sufficient to think about making the promise of August 29 into a reality — even if they are never used. We are bound to find other, safer ways of conducting our affairs, whether they pertain to energy sources or to the mediation of international rivalries.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.