Weapons of Mass Destruction in Central Asia

Weapons of Mass Destruction in Central Asia

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Kenley Butler

Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies


Central Asia played an important role in the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) during the Soviet era. The region's vast reserves of uranium were tapped to produce fissile material—highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium—for the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. Wide-open, isolated spaces were used to test nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons, as well as missiles.

In the early 1990s, the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—became independent and faced the challenging task of dealing with the WMD legacy left by the Soviet military industrial complex. After a decade of internal policies supporting the nonproliferation and the non-use of WMD and with significant support from the rest of the world, the Central Asian states are free of nuclear weapons, have signed and ratified major international nonproliferation treaties, and are making strides to either eliminate or to properly safeguard WMD material that remains in the region. There is still work to be done, however, particularly to strengthen the region's export and border control systems.

WMD Assets in Central Asia

Central Asia played a key role in the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) during the Soviet era. Uranium was extracted throughout the region and shipped to uranium enrichment facilities in other parts of the Soviet Union and later incorporated into nuclear weapons. Uranium for the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb was mined and milled at Vostokredmet in northern Tajikistan. Other large-scale uranium mining and milling facilities are located in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

The Soviets tested 456 nuclear devices as well as radiological weapons at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union's largest field test site for biological weapons was on Vozrozhdeniye Island, now a peninsula, in the Aral Sea, where weapons armed with anthrax, plague, tularemia, and smallpox were tested. Chemical weapons were fabricated and tested in western Uzbekistan, near the city of Nukus. The world's largest biological weapons fabrication facility was constructed in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan to produce anthrax. Strategic missiles armed with 1,410 nuclear warheads were deployed throughout Kazakhstan. In addition, the region was home to six nuclear research reactors that ran on highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel and a unique breeder reactor on the Caspian Sea that produced plutonium.

Success Stories

Soon after they became independent in the early 1990s, the five Central Asian states faced the task of creating policies and programs to deal with the WMD legacy left by the Soviet Union. Much of the funding for disarmament and nonproliferation activities came from the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program of the United States. The past decade has seen a series of success stories in the region.

  • Kazakhstan was the only country of the five to inherit strategic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. Upon gaining independence in December 1991, Kazakhstan had 1,410 nuclear warheads on its territory, deployed on missiles and heavy bombers. Kazakhstan ratified START-I in 1992, acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1994, and transferred the last of its nuclear warheads to Russia in April 1995. Missile silos and launch facilities were destroyed and bombers either returned to Russia or dismantled.
  • The last test of a nuclear weapon at Semipalatinsk Test Site took place in November 1989. Kazakhstani President Nazarbayev closed the Semipalatinsk Test Site in August 1991, three months before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union. From 1997 to 2000, a series of calibrated explosions destroyed testing infrastructure, including bore holes and tunnels, at the site.
  • In November 1994, under a secret operation known as Project Sapphire, 581 kilograms (1,278 pounds) of HEU fuel was transferred from the Ulba Metallurgy Plant in northeast Kazakhstan to the United States. The material, left over from a Soviet submarine fuel program, had been stored in unsecured facilities at the plant. Experts estimate there was enough fissile material to produce 20-25 nuclear weapons.
  • A large-scale anthrax production facility in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan, was dismantled and much of its infrastructure destroyed. Physical protection and accounting systems at biological research facilities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been upgraded through the CTR program.
  • In 2002, the United States engaged private companies in a partnership to separate low-enriched uranium from uranium concentrate at Ulba Metallurgy Plant in northeast Kazakhstan. The resulting material can be used as fuel in nuclear power reactors. The project will create 50 new jobs for former Ulba workers and hundreds of jobs in the future, thus reducing the possibility that nuclear physicists and technicians might be lured out of economic interest to assist in the weapons programs of other countries.
  • The United States allocated $6 million to decontaminate areas of Vozrozhdeniye Island, where biological agents are buried, and to dismantle testing infrastructure.
  • Two nuclear research reactors have been dismantled entirely, including one in Tashkent and one at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. The Semipalatinsk reactor was shipped back to Russia.
  • Physical protection and material accounting systems have been upgraded at nuclear research reactors in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The 90 percent HEU fuel at a research reactor in Uzbekistan was reduced to 36 percent in 1997. Uzbekistan has promised to further reduce the enrichment to less than 20 percent. Under a March 2002 agreement between Russia, the United States, and Uzbekistan, spent HEU fuel at the site will be shipped back to Russia.
  • A chemical weapons production and testing facility near the city of Nukus in western Uzbekistan has been dismantled with $8.5 million in CTR funds.
  • A breeder reactor in western Kazakhstan designed to produce plutonium was shut down in 1999. The spent fuel, containing three metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, was repackaged—a process that decreased the material's vulnerability to theft and diversion.
  • In September 2002, representatives of the five Central Asian states agreed on the text of a treaty establishing a Central Asian nuclear weapon-free zone.

Areas of Concern

Despite the tremendous strides made by the Central Asian states to secure WMD materials in the region, there are still concerns that existing materials could be vulnerable to theft or diversion. These concerns intensified after the events of September 11, 2001, in part due to the region's proximity to states with suspected ties to terrorist organizations as well as the presence of indigenous terrorist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Fissile material—HEU and plutonium—may be one target of those seeking to acquire WMD capabilities. The region's four operational nuclear research reactors and the shutdown breeder reactor in western Kazakhstan house fissile material. All these facilities, however, have received security upgrades in recent years. In addition, there are plans to transfer some of the excess fissile material out of the region or to more secure locations within the region. Examples of material that has been or will be transferred include the transfer of spent HEU fuel from a reactor in Uzbekistan to Russia and the proposed transfer of spent fuel from the Kazakhstani breeder reactor on the Caspian Sea to a more secure location in northeast Kazakhstan.

More worrisome than the threat posed by WMD materials in the region is the possibility that Central Asia could be used as a transit point for materials originating elsewhere. Central Asia is located between countries to the north with significant amounts of WMD materials (Russia and Ukraine) and states to the south that actively seek to acquire WMD (Iran and Iraq). Export and border control systems in the region lack funding, equipment, and trained personnel to adequately monitor and control the movement of materials across the borders. To date, there have been no confirmed incidents involving the illicit trafficking of fissile materials from or through Central Asia, although there are numerous accounts involving radioactive materials. (See the NIS Nuclear Trafficking database for more information.)

The United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and others have engaged the region's governments in creating a more robust export control system. Through the CTR and other programs, the United States has provided handheld radioactive sensors, vehicles, computers, software, and other materials, as well as training to border control and export control officials in the region. Continued attention to the strengthening of export and border control systems in the region is necessary if the threat of WMD proliferation to and from Central Asia is to be adequately addressed.



  • NIS Nuclear Profiles Database,
  • NIS Nuclear Trafficking Database,
  • Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Programs,

Articles and Reports

  • Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Status Report: Nuclear Weapons, Fissile Materials, and Export Controls in the Former Soviet Union, 2001"
  • Amy Smithson, "Toxic Archipelago: Preventing Proliferation from the Former Soviet Chemical and Biological Weapons Complexes," The Henry L. Stimson Center, December 1999,
  • Report: Preventing the Proliferation of Chemical and Biological Weapon Materials and Know-How," The Nonproliferation Review, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Spring 2000,
  • Gulbarshyn Bozheyeva et al., "Former Soviet Biological Weapons Facilities in Kazakhstan: Past, Present, and Future," CNS Occasional Paper No. 1, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, June 1999,
  • James Clay Moltz et al., "Special Report: Assessing U.S. Nonproliferation Assistance to the NIS," The Nonproliferation Review 7, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Spring 2000,
  • Jonathan B. Tucker, "Biological Weapons in the Former Soviet Union: An Interview With Dr. Kenneth Alibek," The Nonproliferation Review 6, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Spring-Summer 1999,
  • United States General Accounting Office, "Biological Weapons: Efforts to Reduce former Soviet Threat Offers Benefits, Poses New Risks," April 2000,

Printed Material

  • Ken Alibek, Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World-Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It (New York: Random House, 1999).
  • Thomas B. Cochran, Robert S. Norris, and Oleg A. Bukharin, Making the Russian Bomb: From Stalin to Yeltsin (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995).
  • Gary K. Bertsch and William C. Potter, Dangerous Weapons, Desperate States: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine (New York: Routledge Press, 1999).
  • Suzette Grillot and Gary K. Bertsch, eds., Arms on the Market: Reducing the Risk of Proliferation in the Former Soviet Union (New York: Routledge Press, 1998).

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