Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev emphasized the importance of nuclear energy last week but said the country would not rush to launch a nuclear power plant.
At the same time, the head of the country urged the energy officials not to shelve the issue.
“The entire developed world relies on nuclear power. Phobias are out of place here. However, it is necessary to carry out persistent explanatory activities among the people. We will not be rushing with the nuclear power plants construction, but we should not be late with this matter,” President Tokayev said on May 26.
Neighboring Russia has long been offering to help the Kazakhstanis launch a nuclear power plant. As part of his meeting with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in April 2019, President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready to build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan using Russian technology. A few months later, Kazakhstan’s president noted that the decision to construct the plant would be made based on the opinion of the country’s residents.
Last year, Kazakhstan’s energy minister Nurlan Nogayev said the country was not considering the construction of the nuclear facility due to the surplus electricity production.
Kazakhstan is a leading uranium producer, holding about 12 percent of the world’s recoverable uranium resources. But none of it has been used to generate electricity for decades.
The government of Central Asia’s largest country joined the global nonproliferation initiative following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and, among others, shut down a single nuclear power reactor launched in 1973 for electricity production and desalination.
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. The country also homes the world’s first LEU (low-enriched uranium) bank that 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.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstanis have been discussing the construction of a nuclear power plant since 1997, and many oppose this initiative.
Zhanibek Baidulla, an energy expert from Kazakhstan, believes the roots of why locals are worried about the possible launch of the nuclear facility in the country go back to the Soviet era.
“The people of Kazakhstan pay special attention to the problem of nuclear disasters since the experience of the Semipalatinsk test site as the largest disaster in terms of scale left a deep wound in the Kazakh society. This plays an important role in the formation of fears and public distrust of nuclear energy technologies in the region,” he said in an interview with Kazinform on Sunday.
The Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, better known as “The Polygon” and located in eastern Kazakhstan, was the primary testing venue for the USSR’s nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk from 1949 until 1989. In 1991, former president Nursultan Nazarbayev closed down the venue. People living near the facility were exposed not only to acute bursts but also to low doses of radiation over the course of decades.