Nuclear Race: Will Central Asia Build a Nuclear Power Plant?

Nuclear Power Plant; image: TCA,, Tamila Olzhabekova

The answer to the question posed in the title remains uncertain. While Uzbekistan has plans to construct a nuclear power plant and Kazakhstan is set to hold a referendum this fall to gauge public opinion on building one, progress is sluggish. Tashkent has postponed the start of construction, and the issue sparks heated debate in Kazakhstan.

The First Nuclear Power Plant in Central Asia

Historically, Central Asia did host a nuclear facility. Located on the shore of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, this was not a conventional nuclear power plant but a fast neutron reactor known as BN-350. The reactor was the core of the Mangistau Nuclear Power Plant, designed to transform the Mangyshlak Peninsula by providing energy to the city of Aktau (formerly Shevchenko) and powering large-scale desalination plants that supplied drinking water to the arid region.

BN-350

Operational from 1973 until its shutdown in 1999, the BN-350 reactor was decommissioned due to the allocation of U.S. funds for new desalination and heating equipment and the disposal of its remaining fuel.

The extensive maintenance and decommissioning work on the BN-350 have given Kazakhstani nuclear physicists significant experience with such complex and hazardous technology. However, younger generations in Kazakhstan are largely unaware of the BN-350 reactor’s existence. Their knowledge of nuclear physics is often limited to the harrowing stories passed down about nuclear warhead tests at the Semipalatinsk test site and their devastating effects.

Fear and Nuclear Power: Kazakhstan’s Dilemma

The societal fear surrounding nuclear energy in Kazakhstan is deeply intertwined with political concerns. For a long time, the leadership in Kazakhstan has hesitated to move beyond merely discussing the need for a nuclear power plant (NPP) to actually initiating the project. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev recently announced that a referendum would take place in the fall of 2024. However, Ministry of Energy’s officials avoided mentioning the word “referendum” until the last moment, previously asserting it was unnecessary.

Public hearings were held last year in the village of Ulken, Zhambyl district, Almaty region, a proposed site for the nuclear plant. The Ministry of Energy’s press release stated that the local populace supported developing nuclear power, highlighting its significance for regional socio-economic growth. However, media reports revealed that the hearings were contentious, with opposing viewpoints almost disrupting the speech of Nurlan Ertas, the head (akim) of the Zhambyl district. Activists even displayed banners and posters against the plant’s construction.

Certain groups have exploited the population’s fear of another disaster like Chernobyl. Additionally, the government has struggled to convince the public that nuclear technologies are becoming safer. In contrast, Europe now includes nuclear power plants in its list of green energy sources, similar to other renewable energy sources (RES).

In Kazakhstan, renewable energy accounts for only 5% of the total energy produced. The introduction of NPPs could significantly enhance the country’s position in reducing carbon emissions. The government faces a growing electricity shortage that can be addressed either harmfully or fearfully. The harmful options are coal-fired thermal power plants and traditional thermal power stations. The frightening option, in the eyes of many, is nuclear power.

Uzbekistan’s Nuclear Drift

Uzbekistan’s journey towards establishing its own nuclear power plant (NPP) somewhat mirrors that of Kazakhstan. The notion of building an NPP in Uzbekistan first emerged in the 1980s, with the identification of over seven dozen potential sites through surveys. However, the collapse of the USSR halted progress, and the topic became taboo. Concerns about seismic activity rendering nuclear technologies hazardous — similar to those expressed by opponents of NPPs in Kazakhstan — also played a role.

As the need for its own NPP became apparent — given Uzbekistan (and Kazakhstan) lacked alternative means to accelerate energy generation — Tashkent evaluated projects from companies in the U.S., China, France, South Korea, and others. Ultimately, Russia was chosen as the prospective partner.

On December 29, 2017, the governments of Russia and Uzbekistan agreed to cooperate in nuclear energy, after six months of preparation. The initial project proposed constructing a nuclear power plant with Russian-designed VVER-1200 reactors in the Jizzakh region. Each reactor would have a capacity of 1200 MW, totaling 2400 MW from two reactors. This plant was expected to meet about 15-18% of Uzbekistan’s electricity demand by 2030, with a launch date set for 2029.

However, construction did not commence until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official visit to Tashkent at the end of May this year. During his visit, Putin and the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, signed a new agreement to construct a low-capacity nuclear power plant — a novel Rosatom development with no global analogs. The new project entails a nuclear power plant with six reactors, each with a capacity of 55 MW, totaling 330 MW. This is significantly less powerful than the 2017 project.

The new plan retains the original timeline, with a phased launch starting in 2029 and ending in 2033. The sluggish progress in building NPPs in both Tashkent and Astana is largely attributable to Russia’s current status as a pariah in the Western world. Geopolitical considerations aside, technological expertise plays a crucial role. Rosatom is still considered more advanced in nuclear technology compared to competitors in the U.S., France, South Korea, and China. While Kazakhstan attempts to placate its citizens with explanations, both Astana and Tashkent are biding their time. It remains to be seen what progress can be made whilst Russia’s geopolitical isolation endures.