Kazak Police Foil Anti-Nuclear Demo

Activists oppose plan for Kazakstan to play host to enriched uranium stocks for the international community.

Kazak Police Foil Anti-Nuclear Demo

Activists oppose plan for Kazakstan to play host to enriched uranium stocks for the international community.

Police in Almaty have prevented a small protest by opponents of a Kazak government proposal to host a “nuclear fuel bank” that would provide a secure supply to power stations across the world.



It was never going to be a big demonstration, just 30 or so like-minded representatives of non-government groups involved in human rights and similar areas. But it did not even get off the ground.



As they were setting out from their office for Almaty’s main square on April 14, Bahytjan Toregojina and two of her colleagues from the rights group Ar.Ruh.Hak were detained by police. Seven members of the opposition party Azat and two journalists were picked up separately.



All 12 were taken to a police station and released after making statements.



However small in number, the would-be protesters had a serious point to make. Kazakstan renounced nuclear weapons soon after independence in 1991, and it has had to live with the ecological and health problems around the giant Semipalatinsk testing ground where over 450 atom bombs were set off by the Soviet authorities between 1949 and 1989.



The test site was closed down in 1991, and Kazakstan subsequently renounced the development and use of nuclear arms.



Kazakstan is still a major producer of uranium for peaceful purposes – it has about 20 per cent of the world's ore reserves and plans to triple production to 15,000 tonnes by the end of the decade.



Yet other voices in Kazakstan say times have moved on, and the country’s uranium-extraction industry and its exemplary action on nuclear arms makes it the ideal location for the “fuel bank”, where stocks of enriched uranium would be held for the world’s nuclear reactors.



The scheme, which would be supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, would provide a secure and controlled source of fissile material for peaceful use. Countries would no longer have an excuse to develop uranium enrichment programmes, which carry the risk of being deployed to make warheads. Instead, they would simply buy fuel from the bank when they needed it.



After the IAEA first came up with the idea in 2005, Kazakstan and Russia signed an agreement with the agency to look at setting up a storage facility in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, which has a uranium enrichment plant.



Now Kazakstan has offered its own facilities. President Nursultan Nazarbaev revealed the proposal when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the capital Astana on April 6 that prompted Kazak NGOs into action.



“Kazakstan could consider the possibility of locating it [fuel bank] on our territory, as a country that has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and voluntarily given up nuclear weapons," he said.



The Prague-based radio station RFE/RL reports that the Kazak authorities have approached the new administration of President Barack Obama in the United States, and that their offer is being given serious consideration.



For opponents of the plan, the legacy of Semipalatinsk, plus the risk that the fuel bank will not be secure, constitute serious objections.



In a statement, the seven NGOs which planned the protest meeting said the lack of government transparency on issues like the nuclear one should raise concerns.



Toregojina, who was one of the organisers of the protest, told IWPR that in Kazakstan, “everything can be stolen”.



“There is no guarantee for this bank, and no guarantee that double accounting won’t be practiced,” she said.



In addition, she said, Kazakstan would have little control over what happened to enriched uranium once it left the country under IAEA auspices.



“We will be selling fuel for nuclear energy production, but outside the gates [it could go] to terrorists,” she said said.



Mels Eleusizov, who heads the leading environmental group Tabigat, agreed that the risks are too high for Kazakstan, adding, “I think that right now, we have enough problems of our own.”



By contrast, Bulat Auezbaev, who heads the department for foreign policy research at Kazakstan’s Institute for Strategic Studies, believes the country has the right pedigree to host a neutral facility, and would benefit greatly from doing so.



“This initiative will bring political dividends. We will advance our position and strengthen our non-proliferation status. And we can provide guarantees that the fuel will be used for peaceful purposes,” he said. “Secondly, of course there’s the investment. There would be start-up capital, and participating states would [each] have to contribute five or ten million dollars.”



“And thirdly, Kazakstan will be in a position to develop its own nuclear infrastructure, which would be worthwhile.”



Auezbaev acknowledged that public opinion in Kazakstan was divided on the issue, and that the history of weapons testing, in particular, made this a sensitive subject.



“But the world doesn’t stand still, and nuclear energy is used in all densely-populated regions. Moreover, cheap energy helps to develop industrial capacity,” he said.



On the streets of Almaty, the opinions of people interviewed by IWPR reflected both sides of the debate.



“Make Kazakstan a dumping ground for nuclear fuel? As if we didn’t have other problems,” said university student Galia.



A businessman who gave his first name as Bolatbek expressed worries about the security risks, saying, “I don’t want Kazakstan to become a magnet for terrorism. I don’t think such sites will be as securely protected as they need to be.”



Taxi driver Vasily, on the other hand, pointed out that this had nothing to do with weapons testing, and said it was crucial for the authorities to deliver a message to Kazakstan’s people that the plan was beneficial rather than dangerous.



Teacher Adilkhan Raev explained that public concerns about the issue came from Kazakstan’s recent history of divesting itself of nuclear arms and living with the consequences of testing.



“Anything where nuclear fuel is mentions produces an ambivalent reaction,” he said. “We’re still dealing with the consequences of the nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk. So President Nazarbaev’s initiative is not going to be warmly received or understood by the majority of Kazakstan’s inhabitants.”



Aygerim Beysenbaeva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.
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