Posted on Aug 29, 2021
August 29th marks the 30th anniversary of the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Since 2010 the date is also celebrated as the International Day against Nuclear Tests, after being designated as such by the United Nations.
Initiated by Kazakhstan, the occasion is a potent reminder of the dangers emanating from nuclear weapons, no less because Kazakhstan has been a leading global voice for disarmament and denuclearization ever since the site closed down in 1991. The occasion is of particular importance for European decision-makers, who are facing an increasingly unstable international security environment amid new debates about nuclear weapons in the EU and its neighbourhood.
Semipalatinsk: from test site to training ground:
Beginning in 1949, the Semipalatinsk site was the primary testing venue for the USSR’s nuclear program. Also known simply as “The Polygon”, it was seen as the crown jewel of Soviet would-be supremacy in the atomic age. Over the next 40 years more than 450 nuclear tests took place in the region, often with little to no regard for the safety of the surrounding population or environment. Health authorities estimate that over 1.5 million people were exposed to nuclear fallout and even today one in 20 children in the area are born with serious deformities.
However, in what was referred to as “a consequence of extraordinary cooperation” between Kazakhstan, the United States and Russia from 1996 to 2012, nuclear scientists and engineers – with financial contributions from the EU as part of its neighbourhood policy – cleaned up the area, securing the plutonium waste in deep tunnels under the mountains. In the years since, Semipalatinsk has become the most studied nuclear test site in the world and is open to both scientists and regular tourists. The former site also has an important role in training nuclear inspectors. For example, in 2008 it hosted the largest ever on-site inspection simulation exercise conducted by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization.
The National Nuclear Center, an institution established by the Kazakh government in 1992 is dedicated to ameliorating the devastations left by the tests. Among its most important endeavours is “re-cultivation” which consists of ploughing the earth in a way that buries contaminated topsoil and brings up uncontaminated soil from below. These actions brought hope to the people in the area, with the city of Semipalatinsk, where around 300,000 people live, deciding to change its name to Semey in 2007.
Leading the way:
Kazakhstan’s efforts towards a non-nuclear world have since expanded far beyond its borders. Spurred on by this horrific past, the country emerged as a perhaps unlikely leader of nuclear disarmament in the 21st century. Indeed, several Kazakh initiatives have been pivotal in promoting a nuclear-free world. In 2006 Semipalatinsk was host to the signing of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, a legally binding agreement between five former Soviet states that obliges them "not to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons".
Then, in 2009, Kazakhstan initiated the proposal to make 29th of August the International Day against Nuclear Tests, which quickly gained a large number of sponsors and co-sponsors. The same year, the resolution was adopted unanimously and August 2010 saw the first celebration of this day. The UN Universal Declaration for the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World was adopted in 2015, also at the behest of the Central Asian nation.
The country’s decades-long opposition to nuclear proliferation is not only a point of pride for both the Nur-Sultan government and the country’s citizens, but has also become central to the country’s foreign policy. In that regard, its stated goal is to strengthen global and regional security through mobilizing efforts promoting a world free of nukes.
The EU’s role going forward:
Kazakhstan remains to this day the only country in the world to have completely sealed its nuclear testing sites and removed all weapons-grade material from its territory, including thousands of Soviet warheads. It is often hailed as a model by international organisations for its dedication to the cause and ability to bring even bitter rivals to the negotiation table.
Global power brokers such as the European Union must do more in the fight against nuclear proliferation, whether the threat is coming from rogue states, global superpowers or its own member states. While the EU must be commended for being the main driver behind reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, its “critical engagement” with such matters has seen only limited success. Brussels has been pivotal for Iranian denuclearization efforts since 2003, primarily in efforts to halt the country’s uranium enrichment programme, but has been unable to make its political weight count in a meaningful way since.
Even so, the importance of these efforts – even if they remain below expectations – are nonetheless indispensable to keep the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world alive. In light of the fact that nuclear arms seem to be proliferating more than not, as seen in the diplomatic and military quagmires that surround not only Iran but also North Korea, it’s evident that nuclear war is far from being a mere specter of the past.
As August 29th approaches, Kazakhstan’s experience and efforts highlight that nuclear disarmament is a policy objective to be pursued in Brussels, Washington and Moscow for the benefit of all mankind. As Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi wrote, “Today, we need determination and wisdom to place the common interests of humankind above short-term political considerations. Together, there is no challenge too large for us to overcome.”
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