Nuclear powers bear the most responsibility to lessen nuclear risks, as evidenced by Iran nuclear deal concluded last July. However, below the radar screen, small and medium-sized states are making outsized contributions. Kazakhstan is one. The Nuclear Security Summit in Washington represents a good opportunity to further leverage the will of smaller states to advance nonproliferation. The threat of proliferation is a global danger. North Korean nuclear and missile provocations exacerbate it in Northeast Asia. Indo-Pakistani tensions are a constant worry. Implementation of the Iran deal is in its initial stage and efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists remain a priority. These are tough if not intractable issues, and the major nuclear powers are taking the lead in dealing with these troubling issues. Small and medium-sized states, however, are vital in strengthening the global nuclear security architecture through “soft power” steps. Progress in this area is the sensible focal point of the Summit. States all over the world can help in such tasks as securing and eliminating sensitive nuclear materials, and detecting and apprehending those who smuggle them. No smaller state has done more than Kazakhstan. In 1991 while still a part of the USSR, it defied Moscow to force closure of the main Soviet nuclear weapon test site at Semipalatinsk (now Semey). Nearly 500 nuclear tests had contaminated 18 million square kilometers of land, and created health risks for 1.5 million people. When a few months later Kazakhstan became independent, it suddenly faced the challenge of what to do with the test site and how to eliminate over 1,000 nuclear weapons sitting atop giant SS-18 missiles in silos. Under the leadership of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan wisely preferred to solve these problems through cooperation. As Kazakhstan was coming to grips with how to do this, Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar gained congressional approval for a far-sighted program to help fund the dismantlement and destruction of former Soviet weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure. Kazakhstan was the first of three former Soviet states (Belarus and Ukraine were the others) to eliminate strategic nuclear forces by shipping them to Russia, which Moscow and Washington encouraged. With Nunn-Lugar aid, Kazakhstan then blew up its missile silos and strategic bombers. Kazakhstan did not stop there. It shipped over 500 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium to the United States, destroyed the world’s largest anthrax factory, and helped to secure an open air biological weapons test site on an island in the Aral Sea. As the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, I have seen it take bold steps to advance WMD security for a quarter century. With patience and persistence, Kazakhstan has worked with others to foster an ever more robust architecture of regional and international cooperative measures to stem proliferation and terrorism risks. To realize its vision, Kazakhstan has sometimes acted where others have been unwilling or unable. Last year in partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazakhstan became the host of the world’s first low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel bank. It secures sensitive nuclear materials and offers a reliable source of nuclear fuel, thereby reducing any incentive for other states to enrich on their own. Establishing the fuel bank was the shared vision of many others, among them Kuwait, the United States, Norway, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, all of which jointly funded the bank. President Nazarbayev has used personal ties with other world leaders to advance nuclear peace. In 2013, Kazakhstan hosted two rounds of talks between the P5+1 nations and Iran that helped pave the way for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Kazakhstan played an instrumental role in facilitating the transfer of highly enriched uranium (HEU) out of Iran in exchange for non-enriched uranium, which Kazakhstan supplied as an opening act to implement the Iran deal. A lesson of Kazakhstan is that smaller states can contribute not only by cooperating with other states to build support for nonproliferation, but also by undertaking concrete projects that fill gaps in the global nuclear security architecture. As one real-life example, Kazakhstan has taken the initiative to create a Nuclear Free Weapons Zone in Central Asia. At the Nuclear Security Summit and beyond, the United States and the other nuclear powers should more actively enlist the help of smaller powers. They will often be on the front lines. Nuclear proliferators or terrorists may expect them to be less prepared to detect or apprehend smugglers. Given the wide array of potential nuclear threats, global cooperation and the contributions of every nation are not just options, but necessities. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador Kazakhstan, Georgia, and a U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. He is president of the U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Association. Photo Credit: Kathryn H. Floyd
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