Kazakhstan is close to opening a nuclear fuel bank that would allow countries a safe, reliable means of getting fuel for their nuclear power plants, and would theoretically make it more difficult for would-be rogue nuclear states to secretly build weapons. From the Wall Street Journal:
Kazakhstan believes the international community's first nuclear fuel bank can be up and running on Kazakh soil by late next year, potentially supporting the Obama administration's broader efforts to combat the spread of nuclear weapons... In an interview, Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov said his government hopes consultations with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the future fuel bank's location can be completed by this spring. He added the government then hopes to bring the facility on line by late 2013... The IAEA and donors have already pledged $150 million for the project. An official at the Vienna-based agency said consultations with Kazakhstan were progressing but the target date for the fuel bank's inauguration wasn't yet "set in stone."
The idea of such a fuel bank has been floating around pretty much since the beginning of the nuclear age, but now it seems like it could actually be coming to fruition. I asked Togzhan Kassenova, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, what was different now, and she said the fact that the IAEA itself acknowledged that talks were moving forward. "At this point it appears likely that the IAEA/NTI [Nuclear Threat Initiative] bank will be established," she says, adding that there also have been no offers from elsewhere to host the bank. What makes Kazakhstan a logical place to host such a bank, in addition to its status of the world's leading uranium producer, is its multi-vectored foreign policy. This is obviously a politicized issue, and countries would be reluctant to buy in if they thought that they could be cut off for political reasons. But Kazakhstan can make a credible case that it is a pretty neutral broker in the world. There remain obstacles, however, writes Richard Weitz:
[I]t is evident that many Kazakhstan citizens are anxious about their country’s increasing nuclear activities due to how Kazakhstan was exploited during the Soviet period as a testbed for hundreds of nuclear explosions. Parts of eastern Kazakhstan around the former Soviet test site of Semipalatinsk remain heavily polluted and environmental contamination has polluted much of the surrounding environment and left thousands of people suffering adverse medical consequences. Kazakhstan’s citizens worry that their nuclear industry will again downplay environmental and ecological risks in order to expand the country’s dangerous nuclear activities. Analysts are also uncertain whether Kazakhstan can train an adequate number of scientists, engineers, and technicians to manage the rapid expansion of the national nuclear industry envisaged by current government plans. The government has had difficulty in training managers and workers to help diversify the national economy and reduce Kazakhstan’s reliance on energy exports. Conversely, fears exist that the growing number of Kazakh nuclear specialists might sell or rent their expertise to criminals, terrorists, or foreign governments seeking nuclear knowledge for illicit purposes. Regarding the latter, some commentators are uneasy about the Kazakhstan’s proximity and friendly relations with Iran. Kazakhstan’s desire to remain on good terms with all governments means they have avoided confronting Iran over its suspect nuclear activities. Kazakhstan’s leaders have denounced North Korea for its nuclear weapons tests, but have refrained from criticizing Tehran for pursuing nuclear enrichment and other activities that the UN Security Council has termed illegal and the IAEA has now assessed as possibly aiming to develop nuclear weapons.
Good relations with Iran would seem exactly the reason Kazakhstan is a good place for this, although that situation increasingly looks too far gone for this bank to make any difference. Anyway, it's rare that there is good news in the world that this blog covers, so kudos to Kazakhstan for this, and let's hope it works.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.