The threat from nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest our world faces. If terrorist groups manage to get their hands on material to make nuclear or radioactive weapons, they will not hesitate to use them. The resulting death toll and damage would be unimaginable.
The security of nuclear materials was high on the agenda of the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010. This week, along with President Obama and the leaders of 50 other countries, I will be traveling to Seoul for the second summit to report on progress. We will see how we can further improve measures to keep safe nuclear material and to stop its illegal trade.
The nuclear threat strikes a deep chord within Kazakhstan. For four decades, our country was used as the backdrop for nuclear tests. By the time the Semipalatinsk site was closed, there had been nearly 460 explosions, including 116 nuclear bombs exploded above ground. Although it has been well over 20 years since the last test, their devastating impact is still being felt.
Many thousands of our people have died early because of their exposure to radioactive fallout. Cancer rates and birth abnormalities remain far higher in the affected region than in the rest of the country. Children continue to be born with mental and physical defects. This tragic legacy helps explain the passionate commitment of our people to help lift the shadow of nuclear weapons from our world.
Such was the feeling among our people that we closed the Semipalatinsk site even before we became an independent country on the breakup of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. With independence, we became the world’s fourth-largest nuclear power. One of our first acts as a sovereign nation was voluntarily to give up these weapons.
Since then, we have worked tirelessly to encourage other countries to follow our lead and build a world in which the threat of nuclear weapons belongs to history.
We consider nuclear safety as consisting of three integral components. It is not only about the protection of humanity from nuclear weapons, but also about counteracting potential nuclear terrorism and ensuring the safety of nuclear energy. This is why we actively support disarmament measures, including efforts to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and to persuade countries to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Over the years Kazakhstan has ensured the security of all nuclear materials on its territory and fully complied with the voluntary commitments made in Washington.
We must understand that it is not easy for countries to give up their nuclear arsenal or to renounce the intention of developing their own weapons. The truth is that if just one nation has nuclear weapons, others may feel it necessary to do the same to protect themselves. This is why nuclear proliferation is such a threat to the security of us all and leads to greater risk of an illegal, dangerous trade in weapons and material.
The real intent of Iran’s nuclear program is causing concern across the world. Recognizing the right of all responsible members of the international community to develop peaceful atomic energy under the safeguards promoted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazakhstan has used its close diplomatic relations with our neighbor across the Caspian Sea to urge Tehran to learn from our example.
I am convinced that openness and the development of peaceful relations with neighbors will increase rather than diminish Iran’s status and influence, help lower tensions in the Middle East, and make it easier to find fair, lasting solutions to the problems in that region.
With our neighbors, we implemented the idea of establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in Central Asia. We propose to use this experience to raise the number of such zones worldwide, including in the Middle East. We also need to demand legal guarantees from nuclear states that they will not use these weapons against those without them.
As the world’s largest producer of uranium ore, Kazakhstan is ideally placed to host the first international nuclear fuel bank. The bank, which would be run under the auspices of the I.A.E.A., could provide uranium fuel to enable states to power civilian nuclear reactors without having to bear the risk of not being able to procure uranium at open markets. All countries which meet I.A.E.A. conditions would be able to access the bank.
I would like to say this to all countries: Kazakhstan’s experience shows that nations can reap huge benefits from turning their backs on nuclear weapons. I have no doubt that we are a more prosperous, stable country, with more influence and friends in the world because of our decision.
We need to find the same imagination and will to help countries without nuclear weapons feel secure. This is the only way to prevent nuclear proliferation and reduce the chances that deadly material will fall into the hands of terrorists. I can promise that the citizens of Kazakhstan will do all we can to help create a world in which the threat of nuclear weapons is eradicated.
We chose building peaceful alliances and prosperity over fear and suspicion. Iran faces the same decision now. We must all work hard to create the right conditions in which other countries, too, can make the right choice.
By Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan.