Central Asia’s largest country could be getting ready for a nuclear power comeback. Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that Moscow is ready to help fossil-fuel rich Kazakhstan launch a nuclear power plant if the government decides to do so.
“We are proposing to switch to new forms of interaction, and by this I mean the possibility of building a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan using Russian technologies,” RIA Novosti cited Putin as saying on Wednesday after he met with Kazakhstan’s newly sworn-in President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Kazakhstan is a leading uranium producer, holding about 15 percent of the world’s recoverable uranium resources. But none of it has been used to generate electricity for decades.
In 1991, Kazakhstan became an independent state following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The government joined the global nonproliferation initiative and shut down a single nuclear power reactor for electricity production and desalination. About 91 percent of Kazakhstan’s electricity currently comes from fossil fuels including coal, natural gas and petroleum, while only one percent is from renewable resources.
Energy officials say that the decision to build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan has not yet been made.
“We still have no decision on the construction of nuclear power plants, we have only determined the site so far, so now we will select the most suitable technology for us,” said Mazgum Mirzaliyev, Kazakhstan’s deputy energy minister, according to reports by EADaily.
Mirzaliyev mentioned the city of Kurchatov in the East Kazakhstan region, and the Ulken settlement located in the south of the country as possible site locations.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Kazakhstan inherited nearly 1,500 nuclear warheads and the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapon test site. By April 1995, Kazakhstan had repatriated its nuclear warhead inventory back to Russia, destroying the nuclear testing infrastructure at Semipalatinsk by July 2000. With assistance from the United States and Russia, most of the weapons-grade nuclear material remaining in Kazakhstan was moved to the United States or Russia, or down-blended.
At the same time, Kazakhstan holds the world’s largest uranium bank, and Russia’s state atomic energy company, Rosatom helps Kazakhstan with transporting low-enriched uranium, needed to maintain the facility.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have been offering to help the Kazakhstanis launch a nuclear power plant in what is Central Asia’s largest country. Late last year, Alexey Borodavkin, Russia’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, announced that Russia is ready to help.
Some experts believe that the recent signal from President Putin may be connected with the recent resignation announcement made by President Nursultan Nazarbayev after 29 years in office.
“Putin treated Nazarbayev as the eldest and this could not be otherwise, since Nazarbayev surpassed Putin in age and political experience. With Kassym-Jomart Tokayev it won’t be like that,” Elhan Shahinoglu, Baku-based political analyst wrote Wednesday in a Facebook post.
Shahinoglu claims that Tokayev will accept the Russian president’s offer, saying that, “the president of Kazakhstan does not have the luxury to reject this proposal.”
At the same time, the government in Nur-Sultan – the newly renamed capital of Kazakhstan, formerly known as Astana – has been seriously considering launching a nuclear power plant to help change the country’s energy mix. In 2006, the government 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.
Building nuclear power plants is not cheap, and some analysts say the cost for constructing just one unit could be approximately $5 billion. Additional costs will have to account for storage and disposal of radioactive waste as well as the subsequent dismantling of exhausted reactors decades later.