When the Republic of Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union on December 16, 1991, its leaders found themselves in possession of 1,040 nuclear warheads, seven heavy bombers, and hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles and other nuclear weapons-related equipment. These weapons and delivery systems were only one part of the new country’s inheritance. Kazakhstan now held one of the largest and most diverse systems for producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in history.
Nuclear materials and sensitive equipment remained strewn across the massive Semipalatinsk nuclear weapons test site, where the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear weapons test and followed with 455 more. Just to the east, a metallurgy facility in the town of Ust-Kamenogorsk held enough highly enriched uranium to make about 24 nuclear weapons. Further west, the city of Stepnogorsk housed an industrial-scale facility ready to produce and weaponize several hundred metric tons of tons of anthrax and other biological agents if war broke out between the Soviet Union and the United States. At a nuclear reactor along the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan now possessed one of the largest stocks of weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium in the world—enough to produce around 775 nuclear weapons. Still other sites held capabilities needed for developing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Skilled scientists and experts with experience relevant to running WMD programs went unpaid or under-employed. Many left the country altogether.
The work of reducing WMD threats remains as critical today as it was in December 1991. Though these threats have changed in time, the world still faces WMD challenges as daunting and diverse as those Kazakhstan inherited.