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Kazakh leaders call for non-proliferation of nuclear weapons amid global terror threat

By Aydar Ashimov

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The remnants of the testing site of Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, can be seen in this undated photo. [UN]

NUR-SULTAN -- The possibility of nuclear arms falling into the hands of terrorists remains a global threat, said Kazakhstan's former long-time ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

He called on all nations to adhere to the non-proliferation of such weapons of mass destruction.

"Potentially hazardous nuclear materials are stored in more than 20 countries, each of which can become the target of destructive forces," Nazarbayev said in a speech on August 29 in Nur-Sultan.

He marked the 28th anniversary of his presidential decree that closed the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk (now Semey) nuclear weapons testing site.

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Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (right) shakes hands with Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo (centre) on August 29 in Nur-Sultan. [Kazakh presidential press office]

"It is important to achieve the absolute universalisation and maximum strengthening of the regime and mechanisms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," he added, referring to the landmark 1968 accord.

The decree by Nazarbayev to close the Semipalatinsk site "has historical significance", said Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

"Taken against the will of the Soviet military elite and of certain politicians, the decision of the first president to close the nuclear test site ... has become a catalyst for the entire anti-nuclear movement," Tokayev said at the August 29 ceremony.

This year marks 25 years since Kazakhstan signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he noted.

In addition, the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone was established 10 years ago, he added.

The ceremony in Nur-Sultan on August 29 fell on the same day as the annual International Day Against Nuclear Tests, which is based on an initiative by Kazakhstan that the United Nations (UN) adopted in 2009.

The date was not chosen by accident: in 1949 in Semipalatinsk, the Soviet Union conducted the its first test of a nuclear bomb, and on the same day in 1991, Kazakhstan shut down the testing site.

Contributing to global security

In 2016, Kazakhstan established the "Prize for Nuclear Weapon Free World and Global Security", which it awards to political and public figures.

At the August 29 ceremony in Nur-Sultan, the award went to the relatives of the late Yukiya Amano, former director general of the IAEA, and to Lassina Zerbo, the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO).

"At the helm of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano played a key role in the creation of the Low Enriched Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan and contributed to the settlement of Iran's nuclear issue," Tokayev said.

"The activities and efforts of Lassina Zerbo have resulted in the near completion of the international monitoring network for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. He also took the initiative to establish the CTBTO Group of Eminent Persons and the CTBTO Youth Group," Tokayev added.

At the international level, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in his message for the International Day against Nuclear Tests, urged all countries to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

"I reiterate my call for all states that have not yet done so, to sign and ratify the [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty], especially those whose ratification is needed for the Treaty's entry into force," he said in a statement August 29 on the UN website.

The legacy of nuclear testing is "nothing but destruction", he said, adding that in a world of rising tensions, "our collective security depends" on bringing a global treaty into force that bans nuclear explosions, he said.

Collaboration with the United States

The Soviet regime conducted about 500 nuclear explosions at Semipalatinsk from 1949 to 1989, irreparably harming the health of the local population, Kazakh officials noted at the ceremony.

The closure of the Semipalatinsk test site preceded other measures aimed at nuclear security in the region. These actions included close co-operation with the United States.

In 1993, Nazarbayev and then-US Vice President Al Gore signed the so-called Umbrella Agreement to co-operate on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.

US Ambassador to Kazakhstan William Moser in May visited the Semipalatinsk test site, where he emphasised the continued importance of collaboration to ensure nuclear materials do not fall into hands of terrorist organisations.

"During this visit, Ambassador Moser witnessed the 25 years of close bilateral collaboration at the test site. One of the many projects he visited was at Degelen Mountain, where the United States collaborated with the government of Kazakhstan to seal 181 tunnels that had been used for nuclear testing," the US embassy in Kazakhstan said in a statement.

During the site visit, Moser noted that terrorists could have recovered abandoned nuclear materials, stating, "The stakes of not sealing the tunnels were way too high."

"[The closure of the test site was] a bold move by a nascent leader [Nursultan Nazarbayev] considering that it came four months before Kazakhstan gained its independence. This decision set in motion Nazarbayev’s important non-proliferation legacy," the embassy said in the statement.

Vayl Oxford, director of the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency, accompanied the ambassador during his trip to the test site. Kazakh and US personnel had secured material "that could have created dozens of nuclear weapons", he said Oxford, according to the statement.

Continuing such co-operation, the US Department of Defence trained Kazakh security forces in March on combating the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive materials that could be used in a terror attack.

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