Merry Christmas, Kazakhstan

There is a country big enough to swallow the territories of Texas and France five times over. It is the ninth-largest nation in the world, bigger than Western Europe. Lazy journalists and the liberal media have colored what Westerners know about Kazakhstan, but this holiday season the world owes that young nation a huge debt of gratitude. Kazakhstan has protected us from a nuclear nightmare.

Kazakhstan became an independent country on December 16, 1991, the last Soviet republic to do so. Its communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, became president and established his rule over the new government. His firm leadership immediately drew universal criticism for everything from suppression of the media to human rights violations and so, amazingly, the vast country slowly disappeared from the world stage. Now it is back.

Last week there was a well-attended gathering at Washington’s Metropolitan Club. Sponsored by the Kazakh ambassador, Erlan Idrissov, it featured talks and books by two British authors: Jonathan Aiken, “Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan,” and Christopher Robbins, “Apples are from Kazakhstan.” Presentations were informative and, surprisingly, quite entertaining. Food was predictably delicious. But the short concluding discussion led by Ambassador Idrissov was electrifying. His comments were based on a secret operation concluded in early November that involved tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

Stalin made Kazakhstan the toxic dump of his evil empire. After forcibly deporting many Russian ethnic groups to the distant province, Moscow built chemical and biological weapons factories there too. Soviet nuclear tests above and below ground added to the deadly stew, making vast tracts of Kazakhstan dangerous to this day. Plus, in 1973, the communists began operating a nuclear reactor near the Caspian Sea city of Shevchenko, now called Aktau, that supplied the city with electricity, steam, and potable water. It also produced plutonium for Russian nuclear warheads.

Besides a broken economy, diverse ethnic groups with multiple languages, and factories producing war toxins, President Nazarbayev inherited over one hundred SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 1,410 nuclear warheads. With some financial assistance from the United States, the warheads were sent back to Russia, the missiles destroyed, and the toxin factories shut down. But what happened to the stockpiles of enriched uranium and plutonium?

The heart of a nuclear weapon can be as little as 15 pounds of plutonium, a sphere that would easily fit in the hollow of your palm. As little as 10 pounds would be enough for a bomb if it were of very high quality. In 1991, President Nazarbayev’s new government inherited the Aktau stockpile of a ton of highly enriched uranium and over three tons of “ivory plutonium,” the very highest grade of that radioactive element. In 1994 a secret program run by Kazakhstan and the Department of Energy, codenamed “Sapphire,” moved the weapons-grade uranium to the United States. But what about the huge amount of plutonium?

It was moved too. By rail and highway, three tons of plutonium was sent from unsecure storage at the Aktau plant to a secret and highly guarded facility somewhere in northeastern Kazakhstan. It took a year to complete shipments over 1,500 miles of rural roads and railroad tracks in secrecy and safety. The last delivery to secure storage was made on November 15. Some observers say as much as 100 tons of radioactive material was moved from the Caspian to that new site. Whatever the actual amount, Ambassador Idrissov assured us that it represents enough nuclear material to make 775 atomic bombs!