Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: Nuclear Smuggling Fears

Trafficking of radioactive substances continues despite concerted efforts by the authorities to clamp down on the trade.
By Svetlana Moiseeva

The Kazak authorities have reaffirmed their determination to combat the trafficking of nuclear materials following the latest attempt by criminals to smuggle radioactive waste out of the country.


In an interview with IWPR last week, the director of the state-run nuclear research centre, Kairat Kadyrjanov, said, "The state has strict control of industrial companies and scientific institutes, and all border posts are equipped to prevent the transportation of nuclear materials."


There has been growing international concern over attempts to smuggle radioactive substances out of the country - the most recent of which was foiled by customs officials on the Kazak-Chinese at the end of September, but only made public on October 12.


According to reports, customs inspectors discovered eighteen sacks containing radioactive waste. The cargo was apparently being delivered to a Chinese citizen.


Since Kazakstan became independent in 1991, there have been dozens of bids to smuggle enriched uranium and radioactive waste from nuclear plants, reactors and metal processing factories around the country.


The republic and the region as a whole have been targeted by traffickers since the collapse of the Soviet Union because controls over the storage and use of radioactive materials are not believed to be as rigorously enforced as they used to be, with poorly paid staff bought off by criminals looking to get their hands on the highly marketable substances.


According to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, there have been 181 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials from the Central Asian region between 1993 and the end of last year.


Western security officials are concerned that such substances may end up in the hands of al-Qaeda militants for use in "dirty bombs" - primitive devices that disperse radiation over a large area using ordinary explosives.


In the wake of the latest smuggling incident, the authorities have stressed that they are doing everything in their power to prevent the illicit trade.


Only last month, Viktor Ilyukhin, a member of the Russian Federation State Duma committee for security, said that the illegal spread of nuclear materials from Kazakstan was a very real threat.


He referred specifically to an incident earlier this year, when Russian police detained couriers in Moscow, St Petersburg and Volgograd who were carrying samples of a highly radioactive substance.


In a statement, Ilyukhin claimed the source of the material was Kazakmys, a state-owned company in the central Kazak region of Jezkazgan, which processes non-ferrous metals. The firm's press secretary denied the allegation.


The Kazak authorities have long acknowledged that a problem exists. Two years after the republic gained independence, it approved plans to introduce radiation detectors at customs posts to prevent uranium-rich substances being taken out of the country illegally. However, due to the luck of funds, the detectors appeared only this year with American assistance.


Neighbouring Uzbekistan has introduced a similar detection system, again with the help of the US. Only last year, a truck was stopped at an Uzbek frontier checkpoint and was discovered to be carrying radioactive pipes, later traced to a uranium-processing factory in southern Kazakstan, which had been shut down several years ago.


Controls on facilities using radioactive materials have sometimes been so lax that people living nearby have found contaminated parts in their neighbourhoods.


Almaty physics teacher Alexander Mareev told IWPR how three years ago some of his pupils had come across a ten kg lead cylinder lying in a road and brought it to his laboratory. "The pipe was full of highly-radioactive material. If there had been any breach, it would have contaminated a large area of the city," he said.


Timur Jantikin, the head of the committee for atomic energy at the Kazak ministry for energy and mineral resources, told IWPR that the authorities were making a concerted effort to bring their methods and working practices up to international standards.


The European Union is currently working to improve safety procedures at the Ulbin factory, located in the east of the country, which processes uranium and manufactures nuclear fuel pellets. And a programme to introduce a new system for the registration and control of radioactive materials is scheduled for the end of the year.


Svetlana Moiseeva is an independent journalist in Almaty


More IWPR's Global Voices