Environmental Advocacy and the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Kazakhstan

At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Kaisha Atakhanova, Director, Karaganda Ecological Center, and 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner from Asia, described how the people of Kazakhstan were able to successfully resist a proposed law that would allow foreign countries to dispose of nuclear waste products in Kazakhstan. She explained that Kazakhstan already has a devastating legacy of nuclear contamination from Soviet-era nuclear tests and power plants, which has hurt the country's environment and the health of its citizens. For the first ten years of its independence, Kazakhstan was a nuclear-free zone, but recent legislative changes and the reopening of uranium mines have raised fears of a new nuclear threat to the country. In this situation, Atakhanova argued, grassroots mobilization in support of environmental protection is vital to the future of the country.

According to Atakhanova, there are currently over 200 million tons of nuclear waste materials at over 1,500 different sites in Kazakhstan. Properly disposing of this waste is an expensive undertaking, and the government has no concrete plan to deal with the problem, she said. In June 2001, the government of Kazakhstan announced a proposed law that would allow nuclear waste to be brought into Kazakhstan from foreign countries. Atakhanova contended that this law violated the constitution and many existing laws on environmental protection.

Many people in Kazakhstan were opposed to the law, Atakhanova argued, because they have personal experience with the effects of nuclear contamination. However, people generally discussed their opposition only among friends and family and did not engage in public protest. Atakhanova and other environmental activists formed a network of NGOs to fight the law. The NGOs worked to overcome the public's silence by starting petitions and organizing forums where people could talk openly about the proposed law. She explained that mass protests are impossible in Kazakhstan because of the country's very low population density, so activists found other means to demonstrate popular opposition to the law, including: public debates, concerts, and t-shirts with anti-nuclear slogans.

Atakhanova explained that the leaders of the network decided to focus their efforts on the central government and parliament of Kazakhstan, rather than on the Ministry of Nuclear Energy, because important decisions are not made by the ministries. The network organized a letter-writing campaign to members of Parliament and threatened to publicize each member's vote on the bill on importing nuclear waste. According to Atakhanova, these measures succeeded in convincing delegates that their constituents were opposed to the law and making them nervous about supporting it. The government attempted to discredit the anti-nuclear movement, but was ultimately unsuccessful, she said. In January 2003 the bill on importing nuclear waste was tabled, and the state increased funding for the promotion of nuclear safety.

This campaign, Atakhanova contended, demonstrated that a grassroots movement can be successful in Kazakhstan, and will provide valuable lessons on organizing future movements. In the future, she hopes that environmental organizations will have a real effect on environmental policy in Kazakhstan. She also wants to ensure that decisions related to the environment are made democratically.