Banking on nuclear peace in Kazakhstan

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Media captionKazakhstan's leadership prides itself on its history of non-proliferation

"We live in a gas chamber," says Denis Danielevsky, pointing at several smoking chimney stacks on a hill overlooking a huge industrial area in the town of Ust-Kamenogorsk, eastern Kazakhstan.

Mr Danielevsky is the editor of a local independent newspaper.

It has been writing about the Kazakh government's plans to host a nuclear fuel bank under UN control at Ulba metallurgy plant.

It was once a top secret Soviet facility but today it is the biggest uranium production factory in Kazakhstan.

"The air quality is very bad here and any project with the word nuclear causes a negative reaction among people," says Mr Danielevsky.

But the government of Kazakhstan has a different view. In 2009 President Nursultan Nazarbayev offered to host a nuclear fuel bank under the International Atomic Energy Agency's jurisdiction.

The project is aimed at encouraging countries like Iran not to pursue their own uranium enrichment technologies.

Instead client countries would have a guaranteed access to low enriched uranium to fuel civil nuclear reactors.

Pride in non-proliferation

Formal negotiations between the IAEA and Kazakhstan began last year.

An IAEA delegation visited the proposed site in Ust-Kamenogorsk and made a number of recommendations to the government of Kazakhstan.

Image caption The bank would provide low-enriched uranium to countries for energy purposes

"Taking into account that the plant will be operating under international standards the impact on the environment and public health will be practically zero," says the chairman of Kazakhstan's atomic energy committee Temir Zhantikin.

"The Ulba plant has been working for more than 60 years in this field and they have high standards for nuclear safety and security.

"We never thought about commercial preferences because the project is mainly aimed at nuclear non-proliferation."

Kazakhstan's leadership prides itself on its history of non-proliferation: in 1991 the country shut down the Soviet Union's main nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk. Over four decades more than 450 nuclear tests were carried out there.

The country also voluntarily gave up a huge nuclear weapons arsenal inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Last year, Kazakhstan became the world's top uranium producer. Hosting the multinational talks on Iran's nuclear programme and talking up the nuclear fuel bank has boosted Kazakhstan's image as a suitable peace broker.

'Chicken and egg'

Image caption Opponents of the bank are worried about the potential impact on the environment

But subscribing to a nuclear fuel bank has so far not been on the negotiating table between UN Security Council members, Germany and Iran.

"Until you get a specific resolution on the Iranian issue and remove that off the table you are not going to get onto the general point of discussion on the bank. It becomes a chicken and egg thing," Professor Scott Lucas, a specialist on Iran from Birmingham University, says.

Last September, IAEA Director General Yukia Amano said that work to establish a low enriched uranium bank in Kazakhstan "continued to make progress".

But there has been no deadline set for establishing the bank nor is it clear which countries are willing to sign up to it.

Four years since Kazakhstan announced its willingness to host the bank the people of Ust-Kamenogorsk may not have to worry just yet.

Without any breakthrough in the deadlock over Iran's own nuclear enrichment programme the nuclear fuel bank looks likely for now to remain an idea rather than a concrete step towards world peace.

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