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Kazakhs Praised for Degrading Nuclear Fuel

UST-KAMENOGORSK, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh officials and U.S. nonproliferation experts on Saturday hailed a $2 million joint project to eliminate tons of weapons-grade nuclear fuel that could be used to make dozens of atomic bombs.

The project, being conducted at a once top secret Soviet military facility and now in its last stages, is considered a moderate victory for efforts to keep nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists in a region where Islamic extremism is on the rise.

"Today, the most devastating threat is a terrorist attack with the use of nuclear weapons," said former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, who toured the Ulba Metal Plant on Saturday along with U.S. media mogul Ted Turner and others.

Turner, who co-founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative with Nunn, decried the fact that the United States and Russia retain thousands of nuclear warheads and vast infrastructure for building, testing and maintaining the weaponry.

The NTI is a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

"Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, it's crazy," Turner said.

With fears growing that terrorist groups could use materials smuggled from poorly secured institutions to build a nuclear bomb, or a cruder "dirty bomb," the NTI joined with the Kazakh nuclear industry to share the costs of the project in Ust-Kamenogorsk, about 900 kilometers east of the capital, Astana.

Those fears are heightened in former Soviet Central Asia, which borders Afghanistan and Iran and has seen the spread of Islamic radicalism since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

By year's end, about 2,900 kilograms of nuclear fuel containing highly enriched uranium shipped to the Ulba plant last year from a mothballed Soviet-built nuclear reactor in western Kazakhstan will be blended down so that it cannot be used to make bombs. The uranium, less than 5 percent enriched, will be used for fuel for civilian reactors.

After donning protective white robes and masks, the U.S. delegation and journalists toured the plant, which used to make nuclear fuel for military purposes and was once one of the most secret Soviet facilities.

Cameras from the International Atomic Energy Agency are monitoring the work, which began in 2002. The facility, which includes two other production plants, is surrounded by a 2.5-meter concrete wall and security checkpoints.

NTI officials said security concerns prevented authorities from publicizing the project before now.

The United States has been involved in projects to reduce the threat of weapons material leaks out of Kazakhstan and the rest of the former Soviet Union since the early 1990s.

Kazakhstan had been a major production and test site for the Soviet military's nuclear program and it then housed the world's fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, including 1,410 nuclear warheads. Production stopped after 1991 and the entire arsenal was moved to Russia in 1995, but the country was left with tons of weapons-grade nuclear material, millions of tons of radioactive waste and large contaminated areas -- all guarded poorly or not at all.

The presence of unemployed, highly trained weapons scientists, along with lax border controls and economic decline further raised fears that nuclear material could end up in terrorists' hands.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev praised the project and also criticized the United States and Russia for not doing more to reduce their own nuclear arsenals. "Some countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons and modernize them. Other countries are banned from having them, even to do research," Nazarbayev said. "It's wrong, disproportionate and unfair."

(The Moscow Times 10.x.05)

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