Renowned for its abundant uranium reserves and expansive mining ventures, Kazakhstan is making substantial progress in the realm of nuclear power. Currently, approximately 60 nuclear reactors are under construction worldwide in 17 countries, and with more in the pipeline, demand for uranium has skyrocketed. Kazakhstan is by far the world’s largest producer of nuclear fuel, mining 21,227 tons in 2022, which equates to 43% of global production. Kazatomprom, the national atomic company, is the world’s largest uranium producer, with its subsidiaries, affiliates, and joint ventures developing 26 deposits. Russia, Japan, China, Canada, and France are all heavily invested, whilst international agreements exist with a plethora of other nations.
Kazakhstan’s inaugural venture into the nuclear field was marked by the BN-350 fast-neutron reactor in Aktau, which ran from 1973 to 1999 before being decommissioned. Now, President Tokayev has announced a referendum will be held to decide whether to build the nation’s first fully-fledged nuclear power plant. “On the one hand, Kazakhstan, as the world’s biggest uranium producer, should have its own nuclear power capacity,” Tokayev stated. “On the other hand, many citizens and some experts have concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants.”
The Proving Ground
With Kazakhstan having endured the most contamination of all the former Soviet Republics, anything nuclear is a contentious issue. Between 1949 and 1989, the authorities executed more than 750 nuclear tests in Kazakhstan, the bulk of these, including the USSR’s first successful atomic explosion – codenamed Joe-1 – taking place in the Semipalatinsk Polygon (proving ground) in the north-east of the country. By far the hardest hit area, Semipalatinsk saw 456 tests, which affected two million people across 300 square kilometers.
Eager to know what to expect in the event of a nuclear war, in 1957 the Soviets secretly opened Dispensary Number Four in Semipalatinsk. Shipping in spectators – teachers were instructed to have their pupils watch explosions – the facility observed and analyzed the effects of radiation on the populous and reported their findings back to Moscow.
In this post-apocalyptic land, elevated levels of cancer, tuberculosis and mental illness persist. Today, people swim in crater lakes left by blasts which dot the steppe, though animals won’t go near the water. With all agriculture banned, a vast swathe of land still remains off-limits. Pregnancies are still screened for possible termination, with 6% of babies born “polygon.” Even in inhabited areas, Geiger counters read over 250; the normal level is just fifteen.
In their headlong rush to abandon the empire upon the collapse of the USSR, the Russians left more than an undetonated payload in the mines of Semipalatinsk. As soldiers rioted over conditions and unpaid wages, upon its independence Kazakhstan inherited the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world. With Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi sniffing around, it was widely rumored that the Iranians, who the CIA publicly alleged to be “actively shopping,” had offered $300 million for weapons-grade uranium.
Arriving in Kazakhstan post-haste, through a combination of threats, the promise of a seat at the international table and hard cash, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker persuaded President Nazarbayev to give up Kazakhstan’s cache, which the Americans duly dismantled and disposed of.
With provisional plans for the new facility to be operational by 2035 to cater to the country’s escalating energy needs, the proposed nuclear power plant is expected to house two reactors, each with a capacity ranging from 1,000 to 1,400 megawatts. An optimal location has also been identified in the village of Ulken on the shores of Lake Balkhash, just over 200 miles due north-west of the nation’s most populous city, Almaty. However, a public hearing held in Ulken in August saw “fierce disputes” between supporters and opponents of the project.
The fifteenth largest lake in the world, Lake Balkhash is already in decline, and a nuclear power plant would likely use its dwindling supplies as a coolant. As recently as the 1960s, fishermen were netting a catch of over 30,000 tons annually, but by the 1990s, this had fallen to 6,600 tons. Between 1970 and 1987 alone, the water level fell by 2.2 meters, impacting biodiversity, with 12 types of bird and 22 vertebrates indigenous to the region listed in the Red Book of Kazakhstan as endangered, whilst the Caspian tiger is, in all likelihood, extinct.
“The ‘successful’ completion of a nuclear power station in Ulken is, at best, a distant and problematic proposition,” Dr. Kristopher White, an Economic Geographer and associate Professor at KIMEP University in Almaty told TCA. “Under no circumstances will this improve the ecological situation for the lake or its entire basin – which includes the city of Almaty. A power station at this location would also increase the geopolitical significance of the lake and expand the power and influence of Chinese actors. Increased Ili River water withdrawals, to say nothing of a complete blockage, could force a shutdown of the power station. Being even more reliant on decisions from the Chinese side of the border might also lead to significantly more apprehension here in Kazakhstan.”
Should the referendum return a positive result, another contentious issue is the choice of potential partners in the project. Currently, the contenders include the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), South Korea’s Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP), France’s Électricité de France (EDF), and Russia’s state corporation, Rosatom. Given the fraught state of international affairs, this decision itself represents a geopolitical tightrope act.
On the streets of Almaty, opinions vis-à-vis the project are mixed, with many complaining they feel ill-informed. “to be honest, I don’t know much about this topic, but I do know that such projects have a negative impact on the environment,” a 25-year-old resident of Almaty who preferred to remain anonymous told TCA. “Of course, I realize the huge potential for stable electricity, but I’m frightened by the possibility of a nuclear power plant being built. Since Kazakhstan is often negligent about the environment, I’d rather slow this down in favor of saving nature.”
“Nuclear power plants provide a reliable energy supply, but their impact on the environment raises concerns,” another resident of Almaty, 45-year-old Raushan told TCA. “Given the context of the unstable environmental situation in Kazakhstan, the use of nuclear power may lead to negative consequences. I believe that before establishing such projects, the potential risks should be studied thoroughly.”
Others, though, point to the potential for job creation. Almost 18,000 people are already employed in the peaceful use of nuclear energy in Kazakhstan, and construction of the plant would see this figure rise substantially. Nuclear power could also help Kazakhstan realize its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060; as of 2022, coal accounted for over 70% of the nation’s electricity generation. With these factors in mind, local experts expect the referendum to return a favorable result.
James Walker, the CEO of Nano Nuclear Energy, a U.S.-based microreactor company agrees that sentiments towards nuclear energy are changing. “Even countries like Kazakhstan, who experienced the dismal hardships from weapons tests conducted during the Cold War, are realizing that nuclear energy is uniquely positioned to provide the power necessary to advance the country and improve the lives of its citizens,” he told TCA. “Kazakhstan is poised to be a major player in both the supply chain of this change and a major beneficiary of this energy transformation.”
Further consultations and a feasibility study lie ahead.