While the lame duck U.S. Senate was dithering and dissembling last week over ratifying a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, the former Soviet satellite that has witnessed the unearthly power of nuclear explosions more than any other place on earth took a giant step towards preventing nuclear terrorism, and even possibly putting the world on a path to eliminating the ultimate weapons of mass destruction.
In a little noticed ceremony in Washington, the co-chairs of the U.S.-Kazakhstan Energy Partnership announced the completion of a secret year-long operation to transfer 14 tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium -- enough to make more than 770 nuclear weapons - from a mothballed fast-breeder reactor near the Caspian Sea to a new high security facility in northeastern Kazakhstan.
The announcement came as the last of 12 shipments of nuclear materials completed the nearly 2,000-mile, 13-day journey across the vast Central Asian country to the defunct Semipalatinsk Test Site on Kazakhstan's remote Kansas-like steppes, where Soviet scientists detonated more than 460 nuclear weapons from 1949 to 1990. The U.S. paid most of the cost of the complex transfer operation, nearly $220 million.
Completion of the nuclear materials transfer came on the heels Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) effort to block a vote on ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last year.
Kyl said senators need more time to study the treaty even though it's been exhaustively debated -- effectively nuked the nuclear arms control treaty by making it almost impossible to approve before the 111th Congress adjourns and even more unlikely to approve in the next Congress when the Senate will have six fewer Democratic senators to reach the 67 needed for ratification. Kyl wants to work out a deal to secure tens of billions of dollars to modernize the nation's nuclear arsenal before Republicans will agree to the treaty.
The treaty is the centerpiece of Obama's goal of finally ending the Cold War with Russia by paring back both countries' nuclear arsenals and resuming mutual inspections that lapsed last year, while paving the way toward ultimately eliminating nuclear arms and reducing the chances that terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon.
"The most immediate and extreme threat (to international security) is a terrorist acquiring nuclear material," Thomas D-Agostino, the head of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, told the McClatchy Newspapers. "This takes one of those pieces, a big chunk, off the table."
The genesis of the transfer of the nuclear materials goes back to 1996, when President Clinton approved a plan to help Kazakhstan inventory the spent nuclear fuel at the fast breeder facility in the Caspian Sea port of Aktau, which began providing fuel for Soviet nuclear weapons in 1972. A year earlier, Kazakstan returned 1,410 nuclear warheads to Moscow from the Semipalatinsk Test Site after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev then signed an agreement with President George W. Bush to build a new storage facility at Semipalatinsk to remove the threat of nuclear sabotage at the less secure Caspian Sea facility, which is directly across from the Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechnya, where al Qaeda-linked separatists are engaged in insurgencies.
Last April, I was among the reporters who accompanied U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to the Semipalatinsk Test Site, shortly before he and Nazarbayev met with President Obama in Washington during the Global Nuclear Summit that gave its final approval to the Kazakhstan transfer operation.
As I wrote at the time, Nazarbayev was the first foreign leader to renounce the possession and use of nuclear weapons. In August, 1991, four months before the Soviet Union collapsed, he shut down the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site.
And four years later, after his country inherited the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal, he declared Kazakhstan a nuclear free country and returned 40 heavy bombers and more than 1,400 nuclear warheads to Russia for destruction.
He later ordered the destruction of 148 ICBM silos across Kazakhstan and underground test tunnels at Semipalitinsk, under the Nunn-Lugar Program and approved a secret operation, code named Project Sapphire, that removed 1,322 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to make 24 nuclear bombs, to the U.S. in 1994.
Vice President Joe Biden, Obama's point man in negotiating with Senate Republicans, said failure to pass the so-called New Start treaty would endanger our national security because it would mean "no verification regime to track Russia's strategic unclear arsenal, and would sour U.S.-Russian relations.
But Kyl is unlikely to yield any ground to Obama and Senate Democrats in this lame duck session. Like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and most Senate Republicans, he seems more interested in making Obama a one-term president than a far-off country most Americans have never heard of in making the world safe from the threat of nuclear Armageddon.