ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- This former Soviet republic’s location in an obscure corner of the world has not stopped it from becoming a leader on the frontiers of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, but some issue experts say biggest risk to the nation might be the prospect of resting on its laurels.
“Complacency is the major threat,” said Dauren Aben, a senior research fellow with the national Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies. Any deficit in attention could lead Kazakhstan’s government in Astana to overlook a gap in its nuclear security defenses, he said in a phone interview last week.
“When I talk to people in the field [in Kazakhstan] they will say, ‘Well, you see we’ve done everything possible. We are satisfied with what we’ve done,’” said Aben, whose organization provides official advice to the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, according to its website.
Since ridding itself of the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has continued to go to great lengths to demonstrate to the world its commitment to nuclear disarmament and nuclear security.
The vast majority of Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction-related materials have either been repatriated to Russia or rendered less dangerous and secured inside the country. For the sensitive materials and technologies still present, efforts are ongoing to make them more secure, according to issue specialists.
A plutonium-producing fast reactor at Aktau, near the Caspian Sea, has been shut down and its spent fuel has been secured, according to a July report on global nuclear security released by the Arms Control Association and the Partnership for Global Security.
A research reactor at the Institute for Nuclear Physics, located south of Almaty, is in the process of being switched to run on low-enriched uranium instead of bomb-grade material. The reactor conversion project and the repatriation of highly enriched uranium to Russia are expected to conclude next year, the report said.
A joint effort with Japan to boost physical protections at atomic sites across the massive, largely rural country is expected to conclude by 2015, according to the report. Astana has also announced plans to establish a regional Nuclear Security Training Center in Kazakhstan, though it is not clear when that project will be completed.
Kazakhstan participates in numerous international nuclear security and nonproliferation initiatives, including the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the G8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Proliferation Security Initiative, among others.
But no matter how many nonproliferation regimes the Kazakh government joins and how many atomic material protection programs it implements at home, some level of risk remains. Potentially smugglers or extremists inside the country could get their hands on sensitive substances usable in a terrorist strike, interviewed issue experts agreed.
Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, underscored the idea that Astana must maintain constant vigilance, particularly as it is anticipated to expand its activity in civil nuclear power in coming years.
“Even though Kazakhstan has demonstrated the best of intentions and implemented a number of nuclear security and nonproliferation programs with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and the United States, they just have to keep at it, especially considering the size of the nuclear industry and plans for [its] future growth,” she said.
For example, experts said, Astana must come up with a plan for safely and securely disposing of the spent nuclear fuel that will be generated by its planned atomic energy operations. The government is viewed as likely to decide to build at Aktau the country’s first civil atomic energy-producing plant since attaining independence. However, Aben said he did not expect construction to begin until 2015 or 2016.
However, some issue specialists play down the risk of complacency, saying such a focus misses the diversity of security and nonproliferation matters facing the nation.
Absent academic research into whether complacency has, in fact, become an issue, it “would be more useful not to attempt to single out one challenge but reflect on the complexity of challenges,” said Togzhan Kassenova, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an e-mail last week.
“Kazakhstan faces the same challenges as any nation with ambitious plans in the field of nuclear energy -- training and educating personnel, maintaining the highest nuclear safety and security standards at its nuclear facilities, and investing in strengthened border and customs controls,” she wrote.
Some security risks are fairly specific to Kazakhstan’s culture and geopolitical location. They include rising domestic extremism and a widespread culture of corruption. Taken together, these challenges could complicate Astana’s desire to distinguish itself as a prominent advocate of global nuclear disarmament and an emerging player in the atomic energy market, analysts said.
A landlocked nation and the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan already has one of the world’s biggest uranium mining industries and is a major exporter of the material. Astana also has ambitions to become a manufacturer of reactors for sale abroad.
The Central Asian country has reached agreements with several other nations to locate almost all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle on Kazakh territory, with one clear exception being uranium enrichment, according to Kassenova. The state-owned company Kazatomprom has a monopoly on all uranium digging and atomic fuel-related activities, she said.
The nation in recent years has seen an uptick in terrorist strikes, including multiple suicide bombings in 2011. The Kazakh government over the past decade has seen organizing activity inside the country by the Taliban-allied Jund al-Khilafah; the Islamic Jihad Group/Union of Uzbekistan, which is reportedly linked to al-Qaida; the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir movement; and an alleged Salafi Jihadi Jamaat organization, according to a report on Kazakhstan released last month by the Congressional Research Service.
Nazarbayev last year said that “over 100 crimes connected with terrorism were committed in Kazakhstan in 2011 [and 2012]. …We have to admit the fact that radical and extremist groups are putting enormous pressure on the government and society,” according to the CRS report.
Kazakh nationals have been reported traveling to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban or to Syria to join up with Islamist militias battling the Bashar Assad regime, Aben said. Militants could return home further radicalized and equipped with specialized skills that conceivably could be turned toward plotting attacks against Kazakh targets, such as its future atomic energy industry, he said.
“These are not a direct threat, but these are threats that might create some challenges” going forward if potential nuclear security risks in the country are not properly monitored, said Aben.
Corruption in Kazakhstan could play a troubling role in nonproliferation and security concerns, according to experts. Transparency International in its 2012 index on perceptions of global corruption gave the country a score of 28 on a 100-point scale, with 100 indicating a perception that a nation is seen as “very clean.” Denmark topped the list with a score of 90 and Somalia came in last, with just 12.
Still, Astana prizes its reputation for nonproliferation and nuclear security too highly to tolerate crookedness inside the government-owned Kazatomprom, a number of experts said.
“I think, in theory, corruption is more of a potential risk at the lower level” of the atomic sector, where industry personnel may be tempted to accept bribes in exchange for ignoring the possible diversion of sensitive materials, Kassenova said in a phone interview.
Aben agreed that corruption is not presently a serious problem inside the nation’s nuclear sites, though it becomes a bigger worry in terms of the records of the customs office, police and border enforcement agencies.
As an example, the analyst cited the prevalence of drugs such as opium and heroin that are smuggled through the country from Afghanistan.
“Of course, some of these drug cartels, they bribe officials on the border; they bribe border control [and] customs officials. What could prevent them [from bribing] officials when they are taking, for example, radiological materials?” he pondered.
“You can never exclude the possibility that there could be some people willing to just close their eyes” and allow proliferation to occur, said Aben, speaking by phone from Almaty last week.
A group of U.S. journalists is visiting the city in southeastern Kazakhstan this week as part of a reporting trip organized by Johns Hopkins University's International Reporting Project.