Nuclear Security: Risks for Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan played an important role in the Soviet military-industrial complex. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent state inherited uranium mining and milling facilities, nuclear research reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium, and test sites for nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. Kazakhstan became home to the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, with 1,410 nuclear warheads deployed on missiles and heavy bombers. With significant disarmament and nonproliferation as

sistance from international partners, Kazakhstan transferred, dismantled, and eliminated all of the nuclear weapons systems and facilities and much of the infrastructure left on its territory; signed and ratified major international nonproliferation

treaties; and became an active proponent of the international nonproliferation regime.

At present, however, Kazakhstan faces a number of nuclear-security-related risks and challenges. Most importantly, nuclear and radioactive materials remaining in the country need to be properly safeguarded from theft or diversion. In addition to unsolved problems resulting from the Soviet nuclear-weapons program, the country may confront new threats stemming from its decision to develop a national nuclear power industry, including the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism. There are other potential challenges, such as illicit trafficking in nuclear materials, technologies, and equipment. These risks are exacerbated by the country’s insufficiently

protected borders, lack of interagency cooperation, relatively weak law-enforcement capabilities, and other internal security challenges, as well as transnational organized crime.

Future nuclear-security activities in Kazakhstan should focus on improving nuclear-security systems at nuclear facilities, continuing engagement on the former Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, countering radiological security threats, enhancing export controls and border security, and strengthening cyber security in the nuclear sector.

Improving Security at Nuclear Facilities

As part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, multiple projects have been

implemented in Kazakhstan in such areas as making technological upgrades, improving protection, control, and accounting systems for nuclear and radioactive materials, and strengthening security measures at nuclear industry facilities and nuclear installations. It would seem that all these improvements, along with increased protection of nuclear facilities by law-enforcement agencies, have minimized external threats, including the threat of a direct attack by terrorists.

However, technical weaknesses in the safety and security systems of nuclear facilities, as well as shortcomings in personnel training and emergency response procedures, make these facilities vulnerable not only to natural disasters and emergencies, but also to break-ins, theft, and sabotage. Even if a facility is reliably guarded and equipped with advanced physical-protection systems, human error or greed can lead to security breaches. Experts are now starting to realize the many links connecting nuclear security and safety and the need to improve the security culture.

Thus, there is an obvious need to further modernize security and physical-protection systems at nuclear installations, as well as nuclear-related research centers and industrial facilities in Kazakhstan. Such modernization must include not only introducing more advanced equipment but also increasing the resilience of nuclear facilities in the face of emergencies and terrorist attacks, as well as augmenting the capability of security forces with training and equipment.

With the Kazakhstani government’s consent, representatives of international partners, in cooperation with the relevant national authority, could conduct security audits at existing nuclear facilities in order to estimate the scale and the cost of the required modernization projects. Such in spections must include a comprehensive analysis of procedures, technology, structures, and equipment in order to identify potential loopholes and vulnerabilities, and the development of preventive measures to increase the level of nuclear security.

As part of these activities, an independent international certification of Kazakhstan’s nuclear power-plant construction project could be organized to make sure that it meets all nuclear safety and security standards. International partners could also provide assistance to Kazakhstan by conducting regular training exercises to improve coordination among personnel in case of an incident at a nuclear facility.

To facilitate improvements in the level of security culture in the nuclear industry and to promote interstate sharing of best practices, international partners could help Kazakhstan establish relevant multilayer education programs covering all aspects of nuclear security. It would also be helpful to transform the training center for accounting, control, and physical protection of nuclear materials established at the Institute of Nuclear Physics into a regional nuclear-security excellence center that offers introductory and advanced professional-development courses for officials from national regulatory agencies and for security personnel working at nuclear facilities in Central Asian countries.

In the longer term, the regional states should work together to adopt more comprehensive, robust, and sustainable approaches to fostering a security culture that encompasses not just the nuclear domain but also chemical, biological, and radiological threats and responses.

Continued International Engagement at Semipalatinsk

At the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in April 2012, the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States made a joint state

ment to the effect that efforts to eliminate the consequences of Soviet-era nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk test site were almost complete. It is certainly true that multilateral cooperation programs have carried out an unprecedented amount of work in the Semipalatinsk area to dismantle nuclear-weapons testing infrastructure and to increase the level of security at facilities under the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

At the same time, there is a clear and pressing need for continued international cooperation at the former test site. First and foremost, a number of sensitive facilities still remain there. Strengthening their security is in the interests of not just

Kazakhstan but of its international partners. One of these facilities is the Baikal-1 site, which is currently used as a long-term storage for a significant quantity of nuclear materials and waste

generated by the now decommissioned BN-350 fast breeder reactor in Aktau. Furthermore, Kazakhstan plans to use the facility as the core of the proposed new national center for radioactive waste processing and storage. It is also important to maintain a proper level of security at the sealed tunnels and shafts previously used for nuclear-weapons testing.

The Kazakh National Nuclear Center is also currently working on a land-rehabilitation initiative at the former Semipalatinsk test site. Based on the findings of a comprehensive radiological study, the Center believes that up to 90 percent of the land occupied by the site can be returned to economic use in several phases by 2020, with the exception of severely polluted areas and the territories occupied by nuclear facilities still in use. Taking into account the planned scope of work, it would probably be expedient to consider enlisting international experts in implementing this initiative. In particular, they could provide assistance in assessing long-term public-health and environmental consequences of brown-field site reclamation.

Countering Radiological Security Threats

In recent years radiological security issues have come to be regarded as part of the general nuclear-security agenda. Given the growing risks and threats associated with possible radiation accidents, lax security of radiation sources, and the danger of their use by terrorists, radiological security is becoming a subject of growing interna

tional concern. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Kazakhstani government lost control of some of the radiation sources used for military, industrial, medical, and research purposes. These sources contain highly radioactive materials, including cesium-137, strontium-90, cobalt-60, and iridium-192.

According to some reports, a certain amount of radioactive sources and materials was buried in Central Asia’s numerous uranium tailings and other radioactive-waste storage sites. Unlike the nuclear facilities, these tailings and waste storage sites are not properly guarded and protected. If highly radioactive materials from these sites fell into the wrong hands, they could be used to build a radiological dispersal device, or a so-called dirty bomb. That is one of the region’s most serious security risks related to WMD terrorism.

While dirty bombs do not have the capability to inflict mass casualties or serious destruc

tion, they can cause radioactive contamination of large territories, leading to public-health risks and lost economic opportunities. An attack using a radiological dispersal device would also have a tremendous psychological impact on the population in and around the affected areas. In addition, radical opponents of nuclear-energy development could cite the risk of a terrorist attack using radioactive materials to mobilize public opinion against future nuclear projects. Evidence sug

gests that it is very easy to form negative perceptions of any nuclear-related initiative among the general public in the country, primarily due to a high level of radiophobia.

The risk of a dirty-bomb attack is fairly high, due to the relatively easy availability of radioactive materials and the simplicity of dirty-bomb designs. Furthermore, sources of radiation can be very small and compact, making them easy to transport and smuggle across the borders. That necessitates close cooperation among Kazakhstan and international partners in ensuring the timely detection and interdiction of radioactive contraband, including in equipping border crossings and other strategic locations with radiation detectors.

On the national level, the government must take further steps to strengthen the legislative and regulatory framework for the registration and use of radioactive materials, including the introduction of modern registration and accounting systems that track all radiation sources throughout their operational lifetimes. The government must also introduce harsher penalties for theft or improper use of radiation sources that continue to be widely used in many legitimate areas, including healthcare, research, industry, and agriculture. The relevant government agencies should organize regular operations to locate, secure, and dispose of orphan or decommissioned sources; build special storage facilities; and upgrade physical-protection systems at the existing sites.

Enhancing Export Controls and Border Security

Another potential threat is the possibility of Kazakhstan’s being used as a transit route for illicit transfers of nuclear and other WMD-relat- ed materials, technologies, and equipment. The trafficking routes can be largely the same as the ones used to smuggle drugs out of Afghanistan through Eurasia to Europe. But illicit activities can also be disguised as legal commercial operations, with sensitive equipment and technologies, dual-use products, and fissile materials be ing purchased by front companies or brokerages.

To date, there have been no confirmed cases

of highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium being smuggled via Central Asia. However, the regional authorities have registered numerous cases where cargoes containing radiation sources or radioactive scrap metal were interdicted. Paradoxically, the Eurasian Economic Union comprised of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, while facilitating free trade of goods across borders, could also create opportunities for increased transnational crime, including trafficking activities, by removing customs controls on the Union’s internal borders.

Although much progress has been achieved in securing and guarding the national borders in Central Asia, Kazakhstan must actively cooperate with its regional neighbors and international partners in order to be able to respond effectively to all these threats. It would be appropriate and practical to build on the existing cooperation experience accumulated during the implementation of US - and EU-initiated assistance programs, such as Export Control and Border Security, Second Line of Defense, and Border Management in Central Asia.

The country’s law-enforcement, intelligence, and security services should pursue more active cooperation and information exchange with their foreign counterparts. Kazakhstan and the Central Asian countries should also continue the practice of joint anti-terrorism exercises not only in the

frameworks of the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but also on bilateral and regional bases. Overall, the Central Asian states would benefit

from greater assistance in implementing UNSCR 1540, which aims to prevent WMD from falling into the hands of nonstate actors. In addition, the countries of the region should fully utilize the potential of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon- Free Zone, the only regional security initiative that includes all five post-Soviet Central Asian states.

Strengthening Cybersecurity in the Nuclear Sector

Cybersecurity issues are now coming to the fore in the context of international and national security. The growing number of cyber attacks against government agencies, diplomatic missions, companies, and research institutions all over the world emphasizes the urgent need for improved protection of information infrastructure and resources from criminals, hackers, and other attackers trying to gain unauthorized access.

All of this fully applies to Kazakhstan as well. Cyber security in the nuclear sector is especially important due to this field’s obvious sensitivity and potential dangers should the integrity of IT systems be lost at nuclear facilities.

Targeted cyber attacks by hostile foreign governments or nonstate actors can also lead to the leakage of sensitive information, technologies, and expertise required for the manufacture or use of nuclear materials. Due to the rapid pace of IT development, existing national-security standards and practices often lag behind the constantly evolving cyber threats.

This is why there should be a greater focus on cyber security in Kazakhstan, which is pursuing ambitious nuclear-industry development plans, including NPP construction. Kazakhstan’s vulnerabilities are well known. In January 2013, for instance, the country had one of the highest numbers of computers infected by the Red October cyber espionage malware, which was discovered by the Kaspersky Lab, a cybersecurity firm. International assistance to Kazakhstan in the search for solutions to cyber security risks and challenges could help the country to create an effective system for protecting sensitive information and technologies and ensuring the reliability and resilience of its nuclear industry’s IT systems in the face of cyber threats.

Reducing the vulnerability of nuclear-industry facilities requires, first and foremost, an in

depth analysis of Kazakhstan’s existing body of laws and regulations related to cyber security and of the relevant procedures pertaining to the protection of nuclear facilities. Involving reputable international specialists and scientists in this process would help develop proposals for improving the country’s legislation and procedures, identify existing and potential cyber security threats, and develop effective countermeasures, with an emphasis on proper information protection.

The next step would be to hold comprehensive inspections at nuclear infrastructure facilities to identify vulnerabilities to unauthorized access or acts of IT sabotage. One of the critically important issues that requires close attention is the choice of IT equipment and software for nuclear infrastructure facilities. Cooperation with international partners would help Kazakhstan introduce required certification and testing

procedures for IT equipment and software, and to introduce a set of organizational, legal, technical, and technological measures to make sure that computer networks are properly protected.

The international community could also help Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states set up special cyber units within the national-security agencies, tasked with countering attacks in cyber space. In addition, individual donor countries could look into the possibility of offering training courses at their universities and colleges to address the shortage of cyber security specialists that currently besets the Central Asian states in various industries, including the nuclear sector.


Kazakhstan, in cooperation with Russia, the United States, and other interested parties, has made significant progress in reducing nuclear-

security-related threats, but more work remains to be done. The end of Russian-US cooperation in the framework of the Nunn-Lugar Program must not put an end to international cooperation in the area of nuclear security, including in Kazakhstan, which has a clear interest in continued collaboration with international partners on the entire range of nonproliferation and nuclear- security issues.

Such cooperation would help the country resolve the problems it inherited from the Soviet Union and develop adequate responses to present-day challenges and threats. Such cooperation also benefits outside powers, as it contri

butes to the reduction of risks related to nuclear terrorism and illicit trafficking in sensitive materials, technologies, and equipment. These are dangers that obey no borders.



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