Kazakhstan’s quest for nuclear power relevance

Uranium mine in Kyzyl Kum, Kazakhstan

The for­mer Soviet states in Cen­tral Asia are often derided as back­wa­ters. But Kaza­khstan, the largest, is also tak­ing a lead­ing role in global nuclear secu­rity. The same coun­try where Moscow once exploded hun­dreds of nuclear weapons has spent the last half-decade aggres­sively expand­ing its ura­nium min­ing indus­try… and just this week, nego­ti­a­tions over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

Since its inde­pen­dence on Decem­ber 16, 1991, Kaza­khstan has prided itself on its respon­si­ble stew­ard­ship of its nuclear legacy. Through­out the 90s the Nunn-Lugar Coop­er­a­tive Threat Reduc­tion pro­gram (essen­tially mil­lions of dol­lars in return for allow­ing US inspec­tors to dis­man­tle decay­ing nuclear weapons and stock­piles) brought Kaza­khstan to the fore­front of arms con­trol. In many ways, it was a model for how nuclear states can choose to denu­clearize themselves.

The gov­ern­ment of Kaza­khstan plays into this as well. In 2011, at a twen­ti­eth anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of Kazakhstan’s inde­pen­dence in Wash­ing­ton DC I attended, Kazakh offi­cials told a room of con­nected, pow­er­ful Amer­i­can elites about their respon­si­ble stew­ard­ship of their nuclear legacy — how, despite the unimag­in­able suf­fer­ing wrought by Soviet nuclear test­ing in Semi­palatinsk they have been respon­si­ble, even forward-looking about nuclear secu­rity issues.

Uranium mine in Kyzyl Kum, Kazakhstan
Ura­nium mine in Kyzyl Kum, Kazakhstan

The other side to this highly-paid stew­ard­ship is Kazakhstan’s own vast ura­nium reserves, which the gov­ern­ment has been aggres­sively devel­op­ing for years. As far back as 2007, Kaza­khstan has even pro­moted itself as a global clear­ing­house for ura­nium to power nuclear power sta­tions — an idea that lan­guished until Rus­sia brought the IAEA on board with the idea.

Along the way the Kazakh gov­ern­ment inked ura­nium sup­ply deals with India,China, and Japan. Not even the U.S. has been immune to Kazakhstan’s ura­nium mar­ket expan­sion: in 2007, KazAtom­Prom, a state-owned com­pany, bought outToshiba’s share in nuclear power plant builder West­ing­house. U.S. politi­cians are in on the Kazakh ura­nium game as well.

If all this sounds odd, it’s only because Kaza­khstan is more nor­mally known — if peo­ple know of it at all — as an oil state. And in many ways it is: despite the growth of Kazakhstan’s ura­nium sec­tor, oil com­pa­nies are still plan­ning to investmore than $154 bil­lion in petro­leum devel­op­ment over the next decade.

But Kazakhstan’s quest for it’s “World Bank for Ura­nium” always had a polit­i­cal ele­ment, part of a national nar­ra­tive sug­gest­ing an inevitable future of progress and growth.

This week, Kazakhstan’s role in global nuclear secu­rity rose a notch or two as ithosted a round of talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Almaty. The cau­tious opti­mism some offi­cials expressed about the talks is almost imma­te­r­ial: they’re as likely to go nowhere as all the other talks about Iran’s brinksmanship.

What I find more inter­est­ing is that the talks took place in Kaza­khstan, of all places. Put sim­ply, the rea­son they took place there is because Kaza­khstan is try­ing to turn its rapid eco­nomic growth (how­ever uneven) into global polit­i­cal impor­tance. They tried it by chair­ing the OSCE in 2010. It didn’t reflect well on them, as shortly after­ward OSCE mon­i­tors crit­i­cized Kazakhstan’s elec­tions as unfair and non-democratic.

The Iran talks are, how­ever, a sign that Kaza­khstan is still push­ing as hard as it can for a place at the table of nuclear secu­rity and energy issues. Maybe this is their form of diver­si­fy­ing away from oil (a curi­ous choice, to say the least). But for the time being at least, there’s no sign yet that the EU, U.S., or even UN sees any­thing odd about it.

That’s odd. Kazakhstan’s claims to eco­nomic pros­per­ity were thrown into sharp relief at the end of 2011, when a months-long strike by oil work­ers ended when gov­ern­ment forces mas­sa­cred at least 15. It wasn’t the har­bin­ger of a major protest move­ment but it did show just how hol­low Kazakhstan’s “progress” really is. In addi­tion, Kaza­khstan has a hard road to travel if it wants to be a real player in nuclear secu­rity any time soon: it is too sparse, too remote, and too staid to really dis­place the tra­di­tional pow­ers with­out her­culean effort.

This week Kaza­khstan was some­thing rather banal: win­dow dress­ing. The Almaty talks gave the veneer of neu­tral­ity to the set­ting while the host coun­try is dom­i­nated by west­ern eco­nomic inter­ests. That might be an effec­tive ploy for get­ting Iran to con­sider a bar­gain for a few min­utes, but it’s not likely to change the equa­tion much for Iran.

Iran, how­ever, is only the most vis­i­ble cri­sis in the nuclear secu­rity world. Pak­istan and North Korea are the next big wor­ries there, along with con­tin­u­ing con­cerns about fis­sile mate­r­ial secu­rity, smug­gling rings, and regional unrest putting stock­piles at risk. The rapid rise of Kaza­khstan to be a global player in the ura­nium game is a remark­able arti­fact of these con­tin­u­ing con­cerns, and it’s cer­tain to be involved in future proceedings.

What that will really change is anyone’s guess. Kazakhstan’s econ­omy may be dom­i­nated by West­ern com­pa­nies but its pol­i­tics are res­olutely neu­tral. Kazakhstan’s deci­sion to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union is one way they will try to bal­ance out West­ern influ­ence with Rus­sia. And in 2009 Kaza­khstan com­pleted a major oil pipeline into China — yet more bal­anc­ing against the West.

This leaves us with a very big ques­tion: in future dis­putes, will Kaza­khstan side with the West, or with the Rest? The answer, impos­si­ble to know for now, will deter­mine whether Kaza­khstan is a con­struc­tive or dis­rup­tive force in Eurasian energy, secu­rity, and politics.