Event Recap: Central Asia and the Nuclear Landscape in Asia

Event Recap: Central Asia and the Nuclear Landscape in Asia

Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev near "Stronger than Death", monument devoted to the closure of  Semipalatinsk test site (Source: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov)

Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev near “Stronger than Death”, monument devoted to the closure of Semipalatinsk test site (Source: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov)

Nuclear issues in Central Asia are driven by two competing forces. On one hand, Central Asian nations must manage the challenging legacy of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons activities in the region, including radiated landscapes scarred by nuclear testing and orphaned stockpiles of warheads and material. On the other hand, however, Central Asia strives to create a forward looking path as a leader promoting the peaceful use of nuclear technologies as well as strengthening the non-proliferation regime.

On November 14, 2013, George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies’ Central Asia Program and Sigur Center for Asian Studies’ Rising Powers Initiative co-sponsored a conference on “Central Asia, Iran, and the Nuclear Landscape in Asia.” Experts discussed the role of nuclear issues for countries in Central Asia, the status of programs in established nuclear powers such as China, India, and Japan, and the links developing between these countries. This blog post provides highlights from the event as they relate to the Rising Powers Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project.

You can find an audio recording of the event at the Sigur Center website by clicking here.

Developments in Established Nuclear Powers


Dr. Mike Mochizuki, Associate Dean for Academic Programs, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at GWU, and a principle investigator studying Japan in the Nuclear Debates in Asia project, spoke on how nuclear issues have evolved in Japan after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on March 11, 2011.

The Ebb and Flow of Nuclear Energy in Japan

Japan has been a leading innovator and supplier of nuclear technology around the globe. Until the 3/11 disaster, Japan relied on nuclear power to provide close to 30 percent of its electrical needs. Mochizuki contended that a strong grand consensus on nuclear issues existed in Japan: the island nation would promote economic growth with pro-nuclear energy policies, but remain steadfast against nuclear weapons proliferation at home and abroad. This grand consensus was supported by a broad coalition of pacifists, pro-business groups, and major industry leaders. The events on 3/11, prompted the Japanese public to push back on ambitious nuclear power goals, favoring a step-by-step reduction on its reliance on the energy source. Mochizuki pointed out, however, that the Japanese public’s voting pattern did not follow this trend, backing the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party in recent elections.

Remaining a Non-Nuclear Weapon State…For Now

Mochizuki believed that while the Japanese public debates the future of this grand consensus, Japan has not waived on non-nuclear weapon stance. He noted, however, a rise in support for the U.S. security guarantee whereby Washington extends its nuclear deterrent to defend Japan. The perceived rise in Chinese aggressiveness in the region and North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapon stockpile led Mochizuki to predict that Tokyo will nevertheless maintain robust nuclear fuel cycle for the foreseeable future as a latent capability to hedge against security uncertainties should Japan find itself needing to quickly acquire a nuclear arsenal of its own.

“Made in Japan” Nuclear Technology

After returning to power, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been an “energetic” supporter of exporting Japan’s nuclear power technology abroad even as domestic support for this energy source wanes. Mochizuki suggested that the United States is a major driver for Japan’s continued pro-export policy for three reasons: 1) Japan’s withdrawal from being an innovator and key supplier in nuclear technology weakens the global nuclear industry as a whole; 2) U.S. uncertainty about how to manage Japan’s vast stockpiles of separated plutonium that may be at risk of theft or used to build a nuclear warhead; and 3) if Japan is no longer at the forefront of plutonium reprocessing and other technologies, another country – possibly one without non-proliferation interests at heart – may attempt to fill the void.

Japan’s Nuclear Energy Links with Central Asia

Japan-Kazakhstan Joint Signing Ceremony in 2008 (Source: Japan PM Office)

Japan-Kazakhstan Joint Signing Ceremony in 2008 (Source: Japan PM Office)

Earlier this year, two Japanese nuclear energy companies signed a memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Centre to promote technical cooperation toward the construction of a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan. Japan Atomic Power Company and Marubeni Utility Services will undergo “serious study” on this effort, which builds on similar agreements signed in 2007 and 2010. Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkash is identified as a likely site for a Japanese boiling water reactor. Japan has relied on Kazakhstan as a supplier of uranium and in exchange Japanese scientists have assisted with upgrades at the Ulba fuel fabrication plant. Japan has similar technical cooperation agreements with Uzbekistan, including deals to finance Uzbek uranium development and import large quantities of uranium.


Dr. Deepa Ollapally, Associate Director of the Sigur Center, Research Professor of International Affairs at GWU, and a principle investigator studying India in the Nuclear Debates in Asia, sketched out India’s nuclear energy and weapons programs. She argued that India’s domestic debates on nuclear issues parallel its broader foreign policy debates with Nationalists (advocates for autonomy in India’s programs), Realists (willing to compromise on specifics of these programs to achieve broader national interests), Liberal Globalists (anti-nuclear weapons, pro-non-proliferation regime), and Leftists (anti-nuclear weapons, but also against the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s limits on sovereignty) vying for influence over policy. Especially after the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement, furthering India’s nuclear capabilities remain a top priority for current leadership.

Ollapally argued that India’s nuclear program began as a fully peaceful energy program but ultimately developed into a dual-use undertaking to achieve a number of important goals: provide security against regional threats, boost national prestige, support economic growth, and drive technological advances. While the reality of India’s nuclear program is no longer up for bargaining, she saw New Delhi as willing to support several international non-proliferation efforts, including some sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, separating the military and energy aspects of its nuclear program into distinct sectors, and opening up the energy sectors to inspections. She concluded that India weighs these non-proliferation norms against its own national interests as New Delhi tries to meet security and economic aims.

India’s Nuclear Energy Links with Central Asia

Kazakhstan and India toast civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2013 (Source: Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov)

Kazakhstan and India toast civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2013 (Source: Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov)

Ollapally noted that the nuclear cooperation agreement signed on April 16 between India and Kazakhstan is a significant development that will deepen ties between India and the region. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs said the agreement “will broad-base the cooperation and is expected to cover aspects like research, technology transfer and exploration of uranium in Kazakhstan, which is known to have one of the richest reserves of the nuclear fuel that India needs in increasing quantity.” India agreed to establish an Indian-Kazakhstan Centre of Excellence in the Eurasian University in Astana. India will soon begin to import at least 120 tons of uranium a year from Kazakhstan.


China’s massive energy needs prompted Dr. Robert Sutter, Professor of Practice of International Affairs at GWU and a scholar in the Nuclear Debates in Asia project, to predict nuclear power will remain a growing part of China’s energy portfolio despite the 3/11 accident, though at a less ambitious scale.

The Slow Burn of Non-Proliferation Norms in Beijing

Sutter maintained that China is reluctantly but gradually moving toward broadly accepted non-proliferation norms. On Iran and Syria, for example, Beijing has been willing to join the international community on some sanctions to pressure these nations. However, China has a more mixed record where its interests closer to home trump Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) norms (e.g. pressuring North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons). Sutter did not expect China to go much beyond the minimum international requirements on nuclear non-proliferation and export controls. In fact, he revealed that China is more willing to risk Japan building an indigenous nuclear arsenal in response to North Korea than deal with a failed North Korean state along China’s border.

China’s Nuclear Energy Links to Central Asia

Kazakhstan President  Nazarbayev toasts former Chinese President Hu

Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev toasts former Chinese President Hu

Sutter observed that although China’s nuclear energy ties to Central Asia – notwithstanding imports of uranium – are relatively small, China broader foreign policy strategy remains closely involved in the region, including trade in other national resources. Beijing has a record of successful diplomacy toward Central Asian nations, which Sutter attributed to common authoritarian leanings and the lack of major outside players.



Nuclear Transitions: A Case Study on Coming in from the Cold War

The final panel featured speakers attentive to Kazakhstan as a leader in Central Asia on nuclear issues and a provider of roughly 30 percent of global uranium production. The speakers – Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute, Dauren Aben from the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies in Almaty, Togzhan Kassenova from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Sebastian Peyrouse from the Central Asia Program at GWU – looked at the Central Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, proliferation challenges in Central Asia, domestic debates within Kazakhstan on nuclear issues, and Kazakhstan’ role in the global nuclear order.

Legacy Challenges

Explosion at Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan (Source: AP/Michael Rothbart).

Explosion at Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan (Source: AP/Michael Rothbart).

During the Cold War, Central Asia served as a literal testing ground for the Soviet Union’s nuclear programs. The former Soviet nuclear weapon test site at Semipalatinsk in northeastern Kazakhstan was the location of hundreds of atmospheric and underground nuclear test detonations. As a result, massive amounts of nuclear waste, materials, and radiation were present at the facility when the Soviet Union collapsed. Once the Iron Curtain was lifted, Kazakhstan then possessed one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, including 1,400 nuclear warheads on SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Aben and Peyrouse surveyed how these legacy issues continue to influence the Kazakh public who lived near these facilities, felt the shockwaves, suffered severe health impacts, and later accused local leaders of ignorance and corruption. Peyrouse thought these memories cause the public to be leery of ideas floated by their government to build nuclear power plants, run a global nuclear waste depository, and host the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) fuel bank. He concluded that Astana will need to address these strong atomic aversions if it hopes to move forward with these plans.

Aspiring to Bridge the Divide between Disarmament & Non-Proliferation

Despite these legacy challenges, Kazakhstan has sought to champion a range of significant non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. Kazakhstan repatriated its warhead stockpile back to the Russian Federation and joined the NPT in 1995 as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State. Kazakshstan, with the help of global cooperative threat reduction programs, later destroyed and cleaned up much of the nuclear testing infrastructure at Semipalatinsk. Weitz raised the Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (CANWFZ) – which entered into force in March 2009 – as an example of Kazakhstan leadership on these issues. The treaty bans the research, development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, possession, or control over any nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device in Central Asia. Members of CANWFZ open up for inspections by the IAEA and agree to hold their nuclear fuel cycle activities to strict security and safety standards. It is the first nuclear weapon free zone to exist completely within the northern hemisphere, to include all five Central Asian states, and to recognize environmental impacts of nuclear testing, waste, and warheads.

Several speakers voiced that Kazakhstan’s history and approach to these issues break out of the usual NPT-style debates seen in the past few decades where states with nuclear weapons complain about the lack of movement on non-proliferation goals and states without them accuse others of being negligent in their disarmament obligations. Aben and Kassenova advanced that Kazakhstan’s unique combination of its domestic nuclear energy ambitions, its role as a uranium exporter, its history managing the legacy of the Cold War, and its NPT leadership should make Kazakhstan a model for others to emulate.

Lessons Learned from Kazakhstan

Kassenova recommended that world leaders should look to Kazakhstan for lessons in how to address concerns posed by Iran’s nuclear program and other similar challenges. First, she felt security assurances from nuclear-armed states such as Russia and the United States were necessary for Kazakhstan to feel comfortable in abandoning its inherited nuclear arsenal – just as Tehran aims for regime survival. Second, she warned that leaders ignore domestic views on these issues at their own peril. Just as strong nationalist impulses drive nuclear policies in Iran, nationalist voices in Kazakhstan needed to be accommodated as Astana sought to leave behind Soviet legacies. Third, talks between Kazakhstan and the West in the early 1990s were not solely focused on nuclear issues. Putting economic cooperation, technical exchanges, and other priorities on the table was necessary to integrate Kazakhstan back into the international community. Fourth, Kazakhstan is a developing and growing country that can help make the case for both disarmament and non-proliferation policies to the rest of the world. Finally, she concluded that the transformation of the former Soviet nuclear test site from a barren radioactive land into an important venue to train experts how to detect nuclear detonations and verify arms control accords should provide a model for policymakers looking for creative solutions to these challenges.


The conference demonstrated the noteworthy role of Central Asia in the nuclear landscape and the interconnectedness of developments in nuclear energy and nuclear weapons throughout Asia. Be sure to follow the Rising Power Initiative’s Nuclear Debates in Asia project on Twitter (@westmyer) and this blog for more news and analysis on nuclear issues in Asia. You can find an audio recording of the event at the Sigur Center website by clicking here.