This is the fifth in a series of articles from the TOL Special Report: Energy.
A few months ago a train headed from Kyrgyzstan to Iran was turned back at the Uzbek border after it was found to be carrying highly radioactive material. It had already traveled through southern Kazakhstan without the substance being detected at border checkpoints.
Kyrgyz authorities have said little about the incident, but it raises the specter of nuclear smuggling in the region just as Kazakhstan has embarked on an ambitious plan to become the world's leading supplier of uranium.
Such unaccounted-for radioactive material, especially highly enriched uranium, is floating around Central Asia, possibly crossing borders freely.
In a January interview with the Arabic daily al Hayat, Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, named Kazakhstan among the four states where most nuclear trafficking incidents occurred, noting that such material could be used for making a "dirty bomb."
As nuclear power elbows its way back into the world's energy picture, the uranium deposits of Kazakhstan could become what the oil fields of Saudi Arabia were 70 years ago, powering an entire new generation of reactors. But some say those reserves—and the country's plans to kick-start its nuclear energy program—could also make the world much less safe.
Already a leading producer of uranium, Kazakhstan intends to dominate the market by 2010. And it aims to move from simply selling raw uranium to exporting nuclear fuel.
Kazakhstan holds the second largest reserves of uranium in the world, behind Australia. Last year it produced more than 6,600 tons. This year, it plans to produce 9,600 tons, and by 2010, 15,000 tons, more than any other country.
"This sector will give Kazakhstan an enormous geopolitical influence in the world. If you removed Kazakhstan, then the global nuclear energy industry would collapse," said Mukhtar Dzhakishev, president of state-owned mining and power company Kazatomprom.
The Central Asian country already exports nuclear pellets to Russia, and recent agreements with Chinese and Japanese firms will send its nuclear fuel into new markets.
Kazatomprom estimates that by 2030, when most of the nuclear power plants now on drawing boards across the globe should be operating, Kazakhstan's budget could take in $15 billion annually from exports of nuclear fuel, three times what exports of raw uranium would yield.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had a broken cycle of fuel production," Dzhakishev said.
Kazakhstan is catching up quickly. Together with the Canadian company Cameco, it is building a conversion facility at the Ulba factory in eastern Kazakhstan, one of the biggest uranium processing plants in the world.
In 2006 Kazakhstan and Russia agreed to begin enrichment of Kazakh uranium at the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Siberia. A 2007 deal with Toshiba to purchase 10 percent of its Westinghouse subsidiary, a leading U.S. maker of nuclear reactors, gave Kazatomprom access to production of fuel assemblies.
At the same time, Kazakhstan is eyeing its own nuclear power program as a chance to become energy-independent. Officials are pinning their hopes on a new generation of reactors that can use new and recycled fuel, thereby reducing radioactive waste.
But if stepped-up uranium production and nuclear power can help ease the global energy crunch, they could bring with them another set of headaches, especially in a region close to hot spots like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Last summer, Greenpeace and other environmental groups expressed concern about nuclear proliferation over the Westinghouse deal. They argued that it would jeopardize global security as Kazakhstan may become unstable in the future and terrorists may get hold of the technology to make a dirty bomb.
Dzhakishev called such fears groundless, saying, "Production of fuel assemblies has nothing to do with nuclear weapons."
Rensselaer Lee, an expert on nuclear security from U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, agreed. "Kazakhstan is a stable country now, and for the foreseeable future I see no major threat associated with Kazakhstan's acquisition of some nuclear power technology."
That technology includes new reactors, which Dzhakishev says are much safer than their predecessors. He said they would shut down automatically in the event of a terrorist attack, citing the example of the ill-fated Russian nuclear submarine Kursk, which sank in 2000 when a torpedo went off inside it.
"No one turned the reactor off. It shut down itself automatically without any radiation leakage," Dzhakishev said.
But the worries don't stop there, especially given that a Kyrgyz train could travel through Kazakhstan undetected with radioactive material on board.
In a 2007 report, Togzhan Kassenova, a fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, wrote, "Among the Central Asian states, Kazakhstan has the most developed export control system and is the only state to belong to one of the international export control regimes (the Nuclear Suppliers Group). However, even in Kazakhstan there is still considerable room for improvement."
Lee, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the region's economic growth and the introduction of modern safeguards have substantially crimped the nuclear smuggling trade. In the former Soviet Union, he said, "There were 16 recorded smuggling incidents of such material between 1992 and 1999, compared to two from 2000 to now."
According to Dzhakishev, Kazakhstan's uranium mines pose little threat. "Even if uranium is stolen in the mines and smuggled across the border, it couldn't be used for making a dirty bomb because it has a very low level of radiation," he said.
Yuriy Vasilyev, from Kazakhstan's Institute of Nuclear Energy, said, "A dirty bomb requires a much higher enrichment, above 20 percent, and this is impossible to achieve without special equipment," which Kazakhstan does not have.
But the country's plans to build new-generation reactors could make it easier. The recycled fuel that they can use is plutonium that has been extracted from spent fuel, explained Antony Froggatt, a nuclear specialist at the London-based think tank Chatham House. "This has significant proliferation implications, as it is much easier to make a bomb out of plutonium fuel," Froggatt said.
Aside from smuggling, Kassenova said there is a danger that corruption in Kazakhstan could lead to overlooked security measures. But she added that Kazatomprom's status as a monopoly could mitigate such risks because organizational lapses would be relatively easy to trace.
Kazakhstan has made major efforts to stem proliferation in its neighborhood. After gaining independence, the government transferred all of the roughly 1,400 Soviet-era warheads that remained on its territory to Russia for decommissioning. It is a signatory to global treaties against nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as well as a member of the IAEA.
In addition, Kazakhstan, which hosted the primary Soviet nuclear testing site, has banned such activity on its territory, and in 2006 it blended down 2,900 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, "enough to produce two dozen atomic bombs," into nuclear fuel, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported.
Despite all these efforts, though, some will continue to look on Kazakhstan's new project with anxiety. For when it comes to nuclear material, the whole world can be at stake, not just Kazakhstan.