UST KAMENOGORSK, KAZAKSTAN, January 2010
Some sixty countries from the developing world are planning to use nuclear power in the near future. Many believe that their fuel supplies could be blocked by Western sanctions totally unrelated to their nuclear ambitions, creating the nightmare scenario that they will begin enriching their own uranium. One solution is to create stockpiles of uranium, controlled by the United Nations, that these governments could draw upon. They would be known as international nuclear fuel banks. Two have already been earmarked – one in Russia and one in Kazakhstan – from where Humphrey Hawksley reports.
We were in a wilderness that used to be home to a string of Stalin’s Gulags. Emerging from a swirl of driving snow, the skyline of a brand new city appeared — mirage-like — in the distance.
It rose from the frozen white Central Asian Steppe, a city of trophies, of boulevards and monuments, a pyramid, a circular tower, a grand arch and, at the outskirts, a mosque with its four minarets flanked protectively, but respectfully, by commercial sky-scrapers.
The scene reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Was this like a creation of Shelley’s Ozymandias King of Kings with his ‘vast and trunkless legs of stone’ standing as symbols of misused power in the desert? Or was it another architectural glimpse of the Asian century whose confidence is stretching from Beijing to Delhi and beyond.
The city was Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, built on the site of a once-isolated railway town in the middle of no-where. Kazakhstan is an oil and gas frontier land and, despite its questionable democracy, a darling of the West.
It used to be a Soviet republic, famous for nuclear testing and its arsenal of weapons – which is why in the coming months it could also become a pivotal global player.
I arrived in Astana from Ust Kamenogorsk, a remote city in the east, once closed to the outside world, whose factories used to enrich uranium to make nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, Kazakhstan stockpiled enough for 55,000 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs.
My destination had been the Ulba Metallurgical Plant to look at an idea that had been suggested back in 1953 by President Eisenhower. It was too idealistic at the time and never got off the ground. But now, prompted by the Iran nuclear crisis, it could be right on the button. Eisenhower wanted to create international stockpiles of nuclear fuel available to any country for – as he put it – the peaceful pursuits of mankind.
Wrapped up against the sub-zero cold, we walked under a line of snow-covered pipes to a building where a guard pulled back a huge metal door. In front of us were green freight cars on a railway line; then, to our right a cavernous expanse of warehouse. Down the end was a wired off area inside which were rows of metallic cylinders containing uranium hexafluoride gas – a key stage of the nuclear fuel cycle.
The idea, if it comes off, would be to turn this area into diplomatic territory under United Nations jurisdiction. The International Atomic Energy Agency would control the nuclear fuel stored here and ready for use by any government that needed it for peaceful purposes – regardless of its politics or human rights record.
It would be known as an International Nuclear Fuel bank.
There are some sixty governments planning to use nuclear power in the future. Some, like Syria or Burma, are viewed as hostile to the West. The nightmare scenario is that many start enriching their own uranium, edging them closer to making nuclear weapons. The solution is that they won’t need to because their supplies will be guaranteed through a mechanism like this.
“Kazakhstan, with its experience in handling nuclear materials, is an ideal place to host a fuel bank,” explained the Kazakh foreign minister Kanat Saudabaev. “And this can be a key lever in stopping proliferation, not just for Iran, but also for many other countries.”
We were sitting with his interpreter in the gleaming ministry building in Astana. Like the whole city, it smelt of newness, with tapestries on the walls and minimalist furniture.
“So how come,” I asked, “that you made a decision to give up your nuclear arsenal, when Iran and other countries seem to be chaffing at the bit to get one?”
“It wasn’t easy,” he replied. “At that time, plane after plane arrived with government leaders offering us jumbo jets filled with dollars if we kept our nuclear weapons.”
“Who?” I asked.
His brow crinkled, but he didn’t answer. I eyed the interpreter. “The Muslim countries,” he whispered.
“What, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria….”
The interpreter answered with a barely perceptible nod, and it was then that I remembered what exactly the futuristic skyline of Astana had reminded me of.
It was Iraq. When building his convention centre in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein had commissioned a mural of a similar scene of mosque’s and skyscrapers in his vision of Iraq as forward-looking state of the Islamic world. But he had failed, largely because he opted for confrontation over his weapons of mass destruction.
“By renouncing nuclear weapons,” the foreign minister was saying, “we gained the world’s trust and a huge amount of foreign investment has come in.” He paused, thinking for a moment. “We can only imagine what might have happened if we had kept them. By now we would have become a pariah state.”