At the end of February 2016, a group of representatives of the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom visited Kazakhstan. The Russian delegation headed by Deputy General Director of Rosatom Vyacheslav Pershukov met with their partners from the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Nuclear energy experts from two countries discussed the prospects of joint work and signing of the forthcoming agreement between the Governments of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan on nuclear energy cooperation, scheduled for 2016.
Among the events of the program, there was a visit to the Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the rapidly developing town of Kurchatov. Works that are underway at the Semipalatinsk test site and in the labs and presence of young qualified specialists among Kurchatov’s workforce are the best testimonies of that. Kazakh nuclear engineers made a special note of the fact that they give high priority to environmental issues. To implement an ongoing monitoring of the level of radiation pollution, a system that includes the most advanced equipment was designed.
As of today, there are no commercial nuclear power plants operating in Kazakhstan. They have only nuclear research reactors. The only Kazakh nuclear power plant built back in the Soviet times was decommissioned in 1999. For some years now, they have been deliberating the construction of a nuclear power plant in one of the country’s regions. It was proposed to build a new nuclear power plant in Aktau, where the old plant used to be. However, this offer was turned down since the TPS currently operating there generate enough energy to supply the entire region, while other regions of the country experience shortage of electric power.
Another option that has been under discussion since the times of the Soviet Union involves building a nuclear power plant near the Lake Balkhash. But this project has never been approved because of protests of the Kazakh public. Many experts also challenge this idea since the disputed area is earthquake prone. An earthquake that occurred near the town of Bakanas in 1979 proves that the fears are not ungrounded. The bitter experience of Chernobyl and Fukushima taught the humanity to be take all possible precaution measures and be extra careful when deliberating a construction site for a nuclear power plant. However, despite being challenged by seismologists and protested by ecologists on numerous occasions, the Kazakh leadership is still considering this project. They say that the area is being carefully explored, and that all the necessary measures will be taken to assure the future nuclear power plant’s operation is safe. The Government of Kazakhstan is also assuring that the scope of data disclosed by Japanese scientists who had investigated the causes of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster will be considered when it comes to the construction of the Kazakh plant.
Construction of a nuclear power plant, however, is always a risky adventure, and it is impossible to account for all possible adversities. The Government of Kazakhstan is willing to take the risk because successful implementation of the project would solve many electric power supply and economic problems. The leadership of Kazakhstan sees the country’s energy security as the foremost concern (the country’s southern regions are still buying electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan).
It is on the agenda to build another nuclear power plant in Kurchatov (the town the Russian delegation has visited) since a significant part of the required infrastructure is already in place. Back in 2003, the construction of the Park of Nuclear Technologies commenced at the order of the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Park’s objective is to conduct comprehensive research of the “peaceful atom.” Negotiations over the construction of a nuclear power plant in Kurchatov with participation of Russian companies began in 2014. According to the plans, if the project is successfully implemented, part of the energy generated by the Kurchatov nuclear power plant will be exported to Russia. Construction of both nuclear power plants is supposed to unfold in 2018, and by 2023-2024 the plants should already be commissioned.
Russian-Kazakh nuclear energy cooperation has a global implication because Kazakhstan is rich in uranium. Its share in the world uranium resources amounts to almost 20%. Numerous uranium deposits are scattered across Kazakhstan. Some are located in Mangystau, between the Syr Darya and the Chu River and in the country’s eastern regions. There are total of 129 uranium deposits in the territory of Kazakhstan. Another advantage of Kazakh uranium—it is located close to the surface making the process of mining simpler and less expensive. Kazakhstan has long been one of the leaders among the uranium mining countries, and in 2009 it ranked the first. Kazakh uranium is exported to many countries, including China (in 2015 China became the largest importer of Kazakh uranium), Canada, the US and France. But de facto, uranium mining in Kazakhstan is controlled by Russia. For many years Canadian Uranium One remained the major uranium mining company operating in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, Rosatom has been gradually buying its shares. At the same time, Uranium One was buying out Kazakh uranium mining companies. The share acquisition business had been going on until Rosatom acquired 100% of the shares of the Canadian company and took the uranium mining business in Kazakhstan under its wing in 2013. Russia also has large reserves of this strategic metal. But now, since it took over the Kazakh deposits, Russia stocked up on uranium for many years. It is worth to recall that Russia is dynamically developing the “fast neutron” technology allowing to re-use spent nuclear fuel. Beloyarsk nuclear power plant already operates a Fast Neutron Reactor. If this technology is widely adopted in Russia and Kazakhstan, these two countries will not have to worry about their energy security in the foreseeable future.
In fact, one of the topics discussed during the February visit of Russian nuclear engineers to Kazakhstan was a joint construction of a MFRR (multifunctional fast research reactor) in Kazakhstan with active participation of Russian specialists.
That makes Kazakhstan a strategically important source of resources for the Russian nuclear industry. The fact that it borders on Russia significantly simplifies uranium delivery. Russia, on the other hand, possesses advanced technologies that could help Kazakhstan put to use its abundant resources. It would be justified to conclude that Russian-Kazakh nuclear energy cooperation has a bright future.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.