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US, Kazakhstan Launch Anti-Nuclear Venture - 2002-01-31

The United States and Kazakhstan are beginning another joint venture aimed at preventing nuclear material produced in the former Soviet Union from falling into the hands of hostile governments and would-be terrorists. The agreement comes a day after President Bush warned he will take action against any country attempting to arm itself with weapons of mass destruction.

Kazakhstan became home to the world's fourth largest nuclear weapons arsenal when it gained independence from Moscow 11 years ago. Its government has renounced the use of nuclear weapons and has worked with the United States on projects covering the removal of warheads and weapons-grade material.

On Wednesday, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced a new joint venture, designed to recover uranium from a former Kazak nuclear weapons facility "which can then be used by civilian power reactors throughout the world." "It will create commercial, peaceful, non-weapons employment in Kazakhstan for former weapons scientists, engineers and technicians," Mr. Abraham said.

In the wake of last September's terrorist attacks, securing old nuclear sites and keeping an eye on scientists who used to run them has only intensified. All the more so after documents uncovered in Afghanistan left U.S. officials convinced Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida network has been working to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

As one of Afghanistan's neighbors, the situation has taken on added urgency for Kazakhstan. Kanat Saudabayev is Kazakhstan's ambassador to Washington. "One can only imagine how big the scope of this tragedy could have been had the terrorists acquired weapons of mass destruction of one kind or another," he said.

But it may be too late to prevent nuclear weapons and the scientific expertise required to build them from falling into the wrong hands. Ken Alibek was a top Kazak scientist who helped run Moscow's secret germ warfare program and who later defected to the United States. He told VOA late last year low paid scientists who helped build weapons of mass destruction in the Soviet Union during the Cold War have probably already scattered around the world. "What I know for sure is a lot of them are overseas," said Ken Alibek. "Many people are in Europe. Some are in the United States. We've heard something about some people who have left for Iran. There was some rumor of some involvement in work for Iraq."

President Bush appeared to be building an argument for confronting Iraq again - perhaps with military force - during Tuesday's State of the Union address. In a message that could be intended as much for Saddam Hussein as for Americans, he declared the United States will not stand by as peril from 'one of the world's most dangerous regimes' draws closer and closer.