Happy Anniversary, Kazakhstan: 25 Years of Reducing WMD Threats


Today marks a special anniversary for global security: the 25th anniversary of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s closing the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Weapons Test Site, which hosted the first Soviet test of a nuclear weapon in 1949 and 455 follow-on tests. Nazarbayev’s decree began the country’s path away from nuclear weapons and launched what would become two and a half decades of advocacy for the tough task of preventing nuclear and biological warfare. To mark this occasion, we take a look back at Kazakhstan’s first 25 years of work reducing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats to find lessons for the risks at our doorstep today.

Kazakhstan offers a unique breadth of counter-WMD activities conducted by a single country. It gave up nuclear weapons, dismantled a large-scale biological weapons program, and took multiple approaches to nuclear security, including by removing dangerous materials and securing others in place. To build on these past efforts, Kazakhstan contributes to regional and global efforts to reduce present and future WMD threats by hosting an international nuclear fuel bank and a disease control laboratory specially designed to reduce biological and health security risks. Several lessons emerge from reviewing the country’s vast body of accomplishments.

Lesson One: Think Beyond the Weapons

First, Kazakh efforts show that the hard work of reducing WMD risks extends beyond merely reducing the presence of weapons themselves. Eliminating WMD threats requires the political will and resources to secure dangerous materials, destroy infrastructure capable of producing WMD, and find employment unrelated to weapons for those with dual-use expertise. Effective WMD threat reduction requires all countries to plan for all of these types of activities and more.

Kazakhstan deservedly gained early credit for giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons arsenal  by sending more than 1,400 nuclear warheads, missiles, and other nuclear weapons-related equipment to Russia by 1995. Equally important, the country’s work to remove and secure nuclear materials kept tons of highly enriched uranium, plutonium, and other nuclear materials off the market.

Project Sapphire, conducted quietly in 1994 and detailed extensively by David Hoffman in The Dead Hand, was the country’s first major success and an early case of the high payoff of Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction efforts led by the United States. In late 1993, one of us (Weber) served at the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan and was approached by individuals offering to sell uranium to the U.S. government. Once the U.S. side learned this offer involved enough weapons-grade material for dozens of nuclear bombs, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev authorized a plan to secretly airlift the material to the Oak Ridge Y-12 plant in Tennessee for downblending.

Subsequently, quiet trilateral cooperation from 1996 to 2012 between the United States, Kazakhstan, and Russia enhanced security and surveillance and sealed off boreholes, tunnels, and other infrastructure previously used by the Soviets for nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk. Now commonly referred to as the Degelen Mountain project, the work was first revealed by Presidents Obama, Nazarbayev, and Medvedev at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. Though the special nuclear materials left behind at the test site remain in place and must continue to be secured into the future, the project has been effective so far in reducing the risk of scavengers accessing them.

Destroying equipment used to produce WMD is another important step in risk reduction that receives even less attention than weapons and WMD-usable materials, but it featured prominently in Kazakhstan’s efforts. Facilities at Stepnogorsk once employed hundreds of scientists to work on anthrax and Ebola-based weapons, among other activities. This site housed equipment built for large-scale, wartime production and mobilization of agents for biological weapons — up to 300 metric tons of anthrax in about 10 months, by one common estimate. The site also included giant fermentors, centrifuges, explosive aerosol testing chambers, biocontainment systems, and countless other types of equipment.

After the Soviet Union fell, Kazakhstan was left with the important task of dismantling Stepnogorsk and other remnants of the Soviet biological weapons infrastructure or converting them for civilian purposes. A report by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies describes this task as revealing “the technical, economic, and financial problems associated with converting former BW [biological weapons] facilities to peaceful activities in the post-Cold War era.”

Lesson Two: Keep Reducing Bio Threats

This leads us to a second lesson: Do not forget biological dangers. While Kazakh leaders draw more attention to Project Sapphire and other nuclear security efforts, the aforementioned work to dismantle bioweapons facilities and equipment and subsequent work to reduce the country’s biological threats show that even countries of modest resources can juggle the elimination of numerous WMD systems.

Reducing access to dangerous pathogens is critical to preventing terrorists from enacting their worst fantasies of biological warfare. Bad actors can be thwarted by lack of access to the most virulent biological materials. For instance, Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo decided to use natural sources rather than purchase starter material for botulinum toxin, which led to the group’s lead biologist working with inferior material. And had the group accessed a strain of bacillus anthracis lethal against humans, its anthrax attack attempts would likely have been successful.

On this front, Kazakhstan continues to work to consolidate dangerous pathogens into a single health research facility opening in September, the Central Reference Laboratory near Almaty. This state-of-the-art lab will secure all the country’s biological materials of highest concern for misuse into a single facility, replacing its previous system of housing them in various decrepit, poorly secured buildings around the country. Given the number of terrorist organizations operating in and around Central Asia alongside potential financial incentives for lab workers to divert WMD materials for surreptitious sales, this consolidation will mark an important step.

Lesson Three: Make it Global

Third, Kazakhstan’s work to strengthen international norms and systems that reduce global WMD proliferation and risks in parallel to its domestic WMD elimination efforts will help to extend the lessons from its WMD-laden past into contributions to international security. This is an important model it shares with Japan. Both countries crafted international identities based on their unique histories of having had or used WMD and also having suffered as victims of their testing and use. Recognizing this commonality, both Kazakhstan and Japan staked out leadership positions on ending nuclear testing and other global counter-WMD aspirations.

Kazakhstan continues its efforts to reduce international WMD risks in a variety of fora. It matched nuclear security with energy security, food security, and water security as its four policy priorities for its successful bid for one of the non-permanent UN Security Council seats for 2017-2018. This issue selection shows continuing support for nuclear security in general, as well as a strong recognition of how these trends are overlapping and shaping the contours of future work by key institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization, whose roles in nuclear, energy, food, water, and health affairs are all expanding.

Other examples of international work include Kazakh collaboration with neighbors to establish a Central Asian nuclear weapons-free zone in 2006, its ongoing work to establish an international low-enriched nuclear fuel bank, and the commitments to reduce nuclear dangers in its own territory made by Kazakhstan’s senior leaders through the Nuclear Security Summits. The country may also conduct nuclear security and non-proliferation messaging and education next year as it hosts the 2017 world expo in Astana, complete with a theme of “Future Energy” and exhibits focused on civil nuclear issues.

What These Lessons Mean for the Future

The landscape of WMD threats continues to evolve, including by  non-state actors, as seen by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s employing chemical weapons, and continual evolution in WMD-related tactics, production, and dissemination capabilities. Even still, the history of the elimination of Kazakhstan’s Cold War-era, industrial-scale WMD programs offers important lessons. Perhaps nowhere is this history more applicable than in North Korea.

While the exact scale of North Korea’s WMD programs remains unknown to the international community, it likely includes a multitude of components and sites for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. For its chemical weapons program, estimates among public sources generally agree that North Korea holds at least 2,500 tons of chemical weapons agents and may hold up to 5,000 tons or more. Akin to the Soviet-era WMD program remnants Kazakhstan successfully eliminated, North Korea’s WMD infrastructure may include dispersed sites structured for large-scale research, production, testing, and storage.

Much intellectual capital regarding North Korea rightfully focuses on policies and capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond to WMD attacks from North Korea; a 2013 RAND paper on the country’s biological weapons work is one excellent example.

Significant work must also go toward consideration of the potential contours of future elimination under wartime or peacetime conditions of North Korea’s WMD infrastructure, including the security, destruction, or conversion of all buildings, equipment, and test sites along with the employment of knowledgeable personnel. For this and other possible future missions to counter WMD threats, Kazakhstan offers 25 years of case studies on the challenges the world can expect and the threat reduction opportunities that the international community must be prepared to take.


Andy Weber served as assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs until October 2014 and is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Christine Parthemore was a senior adviser in the nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs office until early 2015, and is now a consultant and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. This piece is adapted from their forthcoming Belfer Center report on Kazakhstan’s WMD threat reduction efforts. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or U.S. government.