Closing of nuclear test site is significant

By Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev of Kazakhstan

USA TODAY, September 10, 2001

People often forget important anniversaries. On Aug. 29 Kazakhstan marked the 10th anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapon test site. It was the Soviets' main test site on our soil, where almost 500 nuclear explosions were carried out since 1949. With the equivalent of 20,000 Hiroshima bombs, these explosions caused irreparable damage to the health of more than 1.5 million Kazakhstan citizens, blighted lives and rendered vast stretches of land useless for generations.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan made the decision, against the Kremlin's demands, to end these inhumane experiments. At the time, that was tantamount to the governor of Nevada announcing that he would close U.S. nuclear test sites without agreement from the White House.

A conference in Almaty - "21st Century: Towards Nuclear Weapons Free World" - was dedicated to this anniversary. Experts from many countries, including the United States and other nuclear powers, gathered to spread the gospel of nonproliferation. The closing declaration called on all the world's powers to forswear nuclear arms and learn to live together in peace and harmony.

The collapse of the Soviet empire left Kazakhstan with the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. President Nazarbayev made the decision, not supported by some of Kazakhstan's elite, to rid the country for good of nuclear weapons an unwelcome legacy of the Cold War and nuclear opposition between Moscow and Washington.

Today in the era of globalization, the Earth becomes ever smaller and more vulnerable. Every day undeclared wars claim hundreds of lives. Against this backdrop, nuclear weapons are becoming a sword of Damocles hanging over our fragile planet. An example set by a newly independent Kazakhstan when we became the first, and, unfortunately, the only nation so far to close a nuclear test site, to rid itself of the nuclear weapons and to destroy all of its dangerous infrastructure shows mankind the way toward a non-nuclear world, which, we believe, will become a reality.

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