Monday, October 10, 2005

Kazakhstan Says End of Bomb-Grade Uranium Is in Sight - New York Times

Kazakhstan Says End of Bomb-Grade Uranium Is in Sight - New York Times

UST-KAMENOGORSK, Kazakhstan, Oct. 8 - More than a decade after pledging to give up its nuclear arsenal, Kazakhstan announced Saturday that it was moving closer to a second goal: ridding itself of highly enriched nuclear reactor fuel, which terrorists could use to construct a crude nuclear bomb.

The announcement in this distant industrial outpost on the Kazakh steppe was made as Kazakhstan's national atomic company, Kazatomprom, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an American nonprofit organization, neared the completion of blending down roughly 6,600 pounds of highly enriched uranium to a different form that is suitable for civilian use but is not weapons-grade.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev hailed the news at a gathering of non-proliferation officials here, adding in an interview that his nation would convert its remaining nuclear reactor fuel, and perhaps try to convert fuel from other nations as well.

"Now we are capable of converting the highly enriched uranium, or any remains of that uranium, into low-enriched uranium," Mr. Nazarbayev said. "Maybe one day our factory here in Kazakhstan can be a place where highly enriched uranium from other countries can be processed into a low-enriched form."

The announcement underscored the quiet sense of urgency among nonproliferation officials since the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. It also demonstrated a continued area of collaboration between the West and a centralized post-Soviet government in a region where relations have been strained by the slow pace of political and economic changes.

Kazakhstan, the only Central Asian nation left with nuclear weapons after the break up of the Soviet Union, inherited 1,410 atomic warheads in 1991, giving it the fourth-largest nuclear inventory in the world.

Mr. Nazarbayev, the former Communist official who has led the nation throughout its independence, committed to destroy or return to Russia all of its arsenal, and the country swiftly rid itself of nuclear weapons - a decision that Western officials said influenced similar choices by Ukraine and Belarus. "I know what a powerful influence that was," said former Senator Sam Nunn, of Georgia, who worked extensively on non-proliferation issues in the Senate and is a co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

But in addition to its vast nuclear arsenal, Kazakhstan also inherited five aging nuclear reactors, all of which used highly enriched uranium, posing a threat of a different sort.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's central nuclear regulatory body, as little as 60 pounds of highly enriched uranium is sufficient to make a nuclear weapon.

Given the potential dangers, the United States, along with other nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been helping to underwrite the more secure storage and conversion of highly enriched reactor fuel.

The work has been quietly conducted in several nations, including Romania, Bulgaria and Latvia, and has gone forward in nations that have had strained relations with the United States. For example, the United States National Nuclear Security Administration, the semiautonomous agency in the Department of Energy that works on nonproliferation projects, removed highly enriched fuel from reactors in Libya and Uzbekistan in 2004.

The United States has also encouraged the closure of nuclear reactors that use the highly enriched fuel, or their conversion to use the less dangerous low enriched fuel.

The project here is a cooperative undertaking of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization financed principally by Ted Turner that complements the government's work, and Kazatomprom. It began in 2001, when the Nuclear Threat Initiative approached Kazakhstan and offered to help move the fuel from a reactor near the border with Iran and to the site here, and convert it to low enriched uranium, Mr. Nunn said.

A vice president for the group, Laura Holgate, said it proposed the project because the fresh fuel from Aktau was "falling through the cracks" of programs run by the United States. Kazatomprom and the Nuclear Threat Initiative split the $2 million cost, which included upgrading the plant where fuel is converted. Once the conversion is completed, the fuel will be sold for use in civilian electricity production.

Although Kazakhstan has only a fraction of its former material that could be used for a weapons, non-proliferation experts said its work was not completed. There remains an undisclosed quantity of highly enriched uranium at one other Kazakh research reactor. Mr. Nazarbayev also vowed to convert this fuel.

"If in that reactor there is some highly enriched uranium which can be converted," he said, "we will make sure it will be converted."


Post a Comment

<< Home