Nuclear power may not be fashionable these days due to environmental concerns, but that is not stopping Kazakhstan from exploring the possibilities of harnessing the power of the atom and using it to produce energy that is 100 percent carbon emissions-free. Officials from Central Asia’s largest country announced this week the government’s intent to launch local production of fuel assemblies that will be used to build up the core of a power reactor.
“Now a plant for the production of fuel assemblies is being built in Ust-Kamenogorsk together with our Chinese partners. The facility is expected to be ready in 2019,” said Deputy Energy Minister Aset Magauov, according to reports by Sputnik.
A fuel assembly, also called fuel bundles, is a structured group of fuel rods stuffed with pellets of radioactive isotopes that split in a controlled nuclear reaction and produce energy. Depending on the design, each reactor vessel may have dozens of fuel assemblies, each of which could contain 200 or more rods.
Kazakhstan possesses about 12 percent of the world’s recoverable uranium, with 50 known deposits and 22 uranium mines operated by the state-owned company Kazatomprom and through joint ventures. Most of the country’s uranium can be extracted by the environmentally friendly and low-cost method known as underground leaching.
Since Kazakhstan does not yet have its own nuclear power generation facilities, its uranium is fully exported and sold as raw material, namely uranium dioxide – a black, radioactive, crystalline powder. Along with the United States, the list of importers of Kazakhstani uranium includes China, France, India, Canada and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, neighboring Russia has long been offering to help the Kazakhstanis launch a nuclear power plant. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is ready to build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan using Russian technology.
The decision to build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan is not a done deal, but the central government in the capital Nur-Sultan (formerly called Astana) has been seriously considering it, to help diversify the country’s energy supplies.
In 2006, Kazakhstan launched an exploratory project to identify the pros and cons of constructing a nuclear plant. In 2014, Kazakhstan and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding for constructing a reactor, but a location for the site was never determined.
A single nuclear power reactor in Kazakhstan was launched in 1973 to produce electricity and desalinate water, but in 1999 the facility closed its doors after the Kazakhstani government joined the global nonproliferation regime.
Saltanat Rakhimbekova, who chairs Kazakhstan’s Coalition for Green Economy, believes that nuclear power is one of the key alternative energy sources of the future.
“First, why do we need to construct a nuclear power plant? Because there is a shortage of power, a shortage of electricity,” she told Sputnik, adding that before construction a full audit of energy consuming facilities is required.
In 2018, Kazakhstan produced nearly 108 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity, while in the United States this figure amounted to 4.1 trillion kWh during the same period. About 91 percent of Kazakhstan’s electricity comes from fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas and petroleum, while only one percent is from renewable resources.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is getting ready to launch the world’s first LEU (low-enriched uranium) bank run by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and located at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen in eastern Kazakhstan. The facility, commissioned in 2017, can fit up to 90 metric tons of LEU, suitable for making fuel to feed a light water nuclear reactor. The bank ensures deliveries of nuclear fuel to different countries in case of violation of the existing mechanisms of supplies.
According to the energy ministry, the facility is being tested before an official launch, which will take place in August.
“Currently, 90 tons of uranium are being purchased, 42 tons will be supplied by Kazatomprom, and in August of this year the last inspection will be carried out to launch the bank,” Vice Minister Magauov said Wednesday.
According to the agreement signed by IAEA and the central government, the IAEA is responsible for acquiring, delivering, and maintaining LEU for the bank. The IAEA is responsible for expenses incurred for the import and export of the material, as well as taxes, fees and duties, while Kazakhstan pays for direct storage and internal movements of uranium.