Reports over the weekend that the Bush administration has given a green light for the government of Kazakhstan to buy 10 percent of Westinghouse, in return for the transfer of uranium-processing technology to the state-run uranium firm KazAtomProm, did not merit coverage in the leading new outlets in the United States, nor did any presidential candidate comment. It probably should have generated more discussion.
The proliferation of nuclear technologies is important, particularly in that region.
From the point of view of nuclear technologies, Kazakhstan is a very interesting place. When it became independent from the USSR, it reportedly held the world's 4th largest nuclear arsenal, and then voluntarily disarmed, but left behind were vast facilities and resources used in nuclear devices.
There have been a number of disturbing reports about access to nuclear technology and resources. For example, a 2004 AP report looked at investigations into Kazakhstan's role in "the nuclear black market that helped Iran, Libya and North Korea" develop their nuclear programs. This probe focused on the Kazakhstan offices of two Dubai companies linked to the market headed by the father of Pakistan's nuclear program.
A Europe-based Western diplomat working on issues of nuclear proliferation questioned the reliability of Kazakh safeguards for its nuclear assets."Nobody can pretend that everything is perfectly secure," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. . . . huge amounts of unguarded nuclear waste -- material that could potentially be used by terrorists to create a "dirty bomb," combining conventional explosives with radioactive materials -- are scattered around the country and are unguarded.
According to KazAtomProm, Kazakhstan has 30 percent of the world's uranium reserves and is the fourth biggest uranium producer.
Interestingly, the May 1992 decision by Kazakhstan to disarm was announced the day after Kazakhstan president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev announced a $10 billion deal with Chevron, in Washington, DC.
Nazarbayev, a self proclaimed atheist, is an authoritarian leader, who has reportedly diverted at least one billion dollars in oil revenues to his private bank accounts in other countries. He also has close ties with billionaire Alexander Mashkevich, who reportedly controls a quarter of the Kazakhstan economy. In various surveys, Transparency International has ranked Kazakhstan among the more corrupt economies in the world. (See also this recent story about Nararbayev's former son-in law).
A number of other US firms, including Halliburton, are active in Kazakhstan, and the government has retained a number of well connected law firms and lobbying organizations to represent it's interests in Washington, DC, which increasingly involve getting Washington, DC support for its plans for expanded nuclear energy facilities.
Interestingly, Rudolph Giuliani's firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP maintains offices in three non-us locations, London, Dubai and Kazakhstan.
In September 2006, President Bush prasied Nararbayev for his "commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish," despite the fact that the regime has been widely criticized for its suppression of dissent and disregard for human rights. (Nararbayev routinely receives more than 90 percent of the "vote" for president, against no opposition, and recently eliminated term limits from the constitution so he can be president for life).
If I were a reporter, editor, or candidate, I would be asking myself these questions:
1. How did a country like Kazakhstan get an approval (if the approval has actually been given yet) from the US government to acquire nuclear technology from Westinghouse?
2. Is it in our interest to support the expansion of the Kazakhstan nuclear industry, at a time when Kazakhstan is controlled by a corrupt authoritarian leader, in a country that is relatively accessible to Al Qadea or others who are seeking to acquire nuclear technology to make weapons?
3. Who did Kazakhstan hire in the US to influence US officials? For example, did Giuliani's firm lobby on behalf on the Kazakhstan government?
4. Given big oil and Halliburton's presence in Kazakhstan, did Vice President Cheney or the White House get involved in the approval?
One might also go further. What will the current candidates do to slow down the proliferation of nuclear weapons? Did the Bush administration do the right thing in it's 2006 deal with India? How do we feel about Egypt's new nuclear ambitions? Has the Bush administration's failure to deal with North Korea's nuclear program, and the Iraq Invasion and threat to invade Iran, lead to a new nuclear arms race in the developing worlds, and if so, what are the new risks?