Astana, Kazakhstan – Twenty years ago today, our young country took a large step in the international arena with our accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a non-nuclear state, it was a formal sign of Kazakhstan’s determination to work for a world free of nuclear weapons – an ambition which has helped define our country since we first gained independence in 1991.
There were, of course, very good reasons for this commitment. The threat from nuclear weapons, as our President Nursultan Nazabayev has said, strikes a deep chord within our country.
For forty years, Kazakhstan was a test site for nuclear weapons. The fall-out from these tests at Semipalatinsk – of which over 100 were above ground – has left a terrible legacy. A generation later, the deaths and deformities continue. The threat for us from nuclear weapons is not abstract but all too real.
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This is why, in August of 1991, months before we attained full independence – and to the joy of our people – President Nazabayev ordered the closure of the Semipalatinsk site. At Kazakhstan’s urging, the date of August 29 has now been commemorated officially by the United Nations as the International Day against Nuclear Tests.
Kazakhstan followed this move with an even more historic initiative when we voluntarily renounced the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, which we inherited on the break-up of the Soviet Union. No country has done more to bring the goals of the NPT closer.
Ever since those early days, we have continued to work tirelessly to achieve the goals of the treaty. We have encouraged countries across Central Asia to come together to declare the region a nuclear-free zone – a model for wider progress. And we have used our influence in a wide range of international forums to improve nuclear safety.
Our increasing international authority in this field – and our good relations with all parties – also led last year to Kazakhstan being chosen to host critical talks between Iran and the international community over its nuclear ambitions. We are glad that real progress has been made, which opens the way to reduce tensions across the wider region.
There is, however, a great deal more to do. We remain absolutely convinced that only a completely nuclear-free world can prevent the deliberate or accidental use of these terrifying weapons. With the spread of violent extremism over the past 20 years, the threat we face from the doomsday weapons is, in many ways, greater than it ever was in the darkest days of the Cold War.
It is why Kazakhstan has been an active partner in the Nuclear Security Summits in Washington and Seoul, and will also attend the third meeting in the Hague next month. We need to step up global efforts against nuclear terrorism and prevent extremists gaining access to nuclear facilities, material and technology wherever they are sited.
But the recent talks with Iran also highlighted the importance of decoupling fears about the spread of nuclear weapons with the legitimate desire of countries for civilian nuclear power.
This ambition is, of course, recognised within the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself – which acknowledges the right of every country to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
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Indeed, as the world struggles to meet the twin demands of spreading prosperity and tackling climate change, the low-carbon energy that nuclear power produces becomes more important. Our challenge is to balance this expansion while meeting fears about the spread and security of nuclear weapons.
So how can this best be achieved? Kazakhstan shares the views of the International Atomic Energy Agency that the safe production of enriched uranium must be at the heart of any solution. The difficulty is that the facilities needed to produce the fuel which powers civilian nuclear plants can be modified to turn out weapons-grade uranium.
The key to overcoming this challenge is to find ways to provide countries with a guaranteed supply of enriched uranium to power nuclear plants, so there is no need for them to develop their own enrichment facilities. This is the aim of IAEA plans for an international nuclear fuel bank.
Kazakhstan not only supports this innovative approach to civilian nuclear power but has also offered to host the first bank. We are, after all, the world’s largest producer of uranium, and have proven expertise to provide the secure facilities needed. We also, crucially, have good relations not only with existing nuclear powers but also with those seeking to develop a civilian nuclear power sector.
But a nuclear fuel bank is only one step, although important, towards a world in which the threat from nuclear weapons and terrorism is removed. We need urgently to conclude the treaty banning the production of fissile materials and the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Encouraging progress in all of these areas would be at the top of our agenda if we are successful in our candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council for the years 2017-2018. For the past two decades, Kazakhstan has been a strong advocate of nuclear non-proliferation. We are determined to step up our efforts to deliver a peaceful and stable world.
Erlan Idrissov is the foreign minister of Kazakhstan. He has previously served as Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, and to the United States.