Kazakhstan's Nuclear Weapons Free Anniversary

The Republic of Kazakhstan is marking a special anniversary. Twenty years ago, the soon-to-be independent Soviet state closed the infamous Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site and provided fresh impetus to the still-incomplete campaign to ban atomic weapons.

Its dedication to nonproliferation is both praiseworthy and poignant. The health and safety of 1.5 million Kazakhstanis was threatened for decades by the Soviet Union's sustained testing of nuclear devices on the site, some 450 explosions in all. At the same time, Kazakhstan remains one of the world's largest suppliers of natural uranium, which makes it a key player in the ongoing debate about nuclear power.

International monitoring organizations have occasionally questioned Kazakhstan's commitment to democracy and human rights -- criticism the government rejects. But no one denies that the Central Asian nation has been a major force behind the movement to rid the world of nuclear weaponry. That's a distinction worth highlighting as Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev comes to New York next week to participate in the United Nations General Assembly -- almost 20 years to the day since he shuttered Semipalatinsk.

U.S. President Barack Obama has publicly -- and accurately -- called Nazarbayev "one of the model leaders of the world" on nuclear nonproliferation and safety issues. He also has said that last year's ground-breaking Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington would not have been complete if Nazarbayev had not been present.

Indeed, Kazakhstan is passionately dedicated to destroying all nuclear weapons, largely because of the pain and anguish its citizens suffered from the Soviet Union's disregard for the consequences of nuclear testing from 1949 until 1989 at Semipalatinsk, a remote steppe in northeast Kazakhstan south of the Irtysh River. Hundreds of thousands of Kazakhstanis were sickened by the radioactive fallout from nuclear testing there. Studies conducted after the site was closed revealed alarming rates of thyroid cancer and other horrifying abnormalities among the locals.

Kazakhstan also found itself in possession of the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal after the Soviet Union collapsed. It is still not widely appreciated that Kazakhstan, as one of its first sovereign acts, renounced and relinquished those weapons and has worked ever since to make sure other nations did the same.

Kazakhstan is a stalwart advocate of initiatives that would strengthen the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. It has also discouraged other nations from withdrawing from the NPT and promoted universal adherence to the treaty. In addition, Kazakhstan has supported Nuclear Weapons Free Zones around the world and, together with its regional partners, has created such a zone in Central Asia.

Its sincere hope: to enhance nuclear security, prevent nuclear proliferation and combat nuclear terrorism. Kazakhstan also engages actively and constructively with international efforts to guarantee the safe handling of nuclear materials.

Kazakhstan sits atop the world's largest proven reserves of uranium and, as a result, has good reason to want to add value to this resource through its further processing for non-explosive uses. It has demonstrated over and over that it would do so only for peaceful purposes. For instance, it has long been part of an international effort to persuade Iran to come clean on its nuclear development plans.

Kazakhstan backs the establishment of an international nuclear fuel bank under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would provide countries access to nuclear fuel without the need for them to actually possess enrichment technology and in case they aren't able to buy it on the open market.. It has even offered to locate the bank -- considered an important building block in ensuring the safety of the international nuclear fuel cycle -- within its borders and to assume responsibility for the storage of the nuclear fuel.

The threat of nuclear warfare remains one of the most serious challenges of the new century. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has not yet accomplished everything that it could have and should have. Kazakhstan is working hard to strengthen the treaty and transform what has been a moratorium into an outright ban on nuclear arms, including by campaigning for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The nation has been pressing for progress on this vital subject for 20 years and the world is a better and safer place as a result.

Daniel Witt, President of the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC), a non-profit organization, has been working in the Republic of Kazakhstan since 1993. Douglas Townsend is former Australian Ambassador to Kazakhstan.