Climbing One More Rung Up the Ladder of Nuclear Energy Production

With all the attention centred around the signing of the truly landmark treaty establishing the Eurasian Economic Union on May 29 in Astana, fewer people noticed another event that happened on that day, the significance of which surely merits more notice.

On that very same afternoon in Astana, Kazatomprom and Rosatom, Kazakhstan’s and Russia’s state-owned nuclear companies, signed four memorandums of understanding, setting the stage for further close cooperation in this sensitive area. One memorandum envisages exploring the possibility of the eventual joint construction of a nuclear power plant (NPP) in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan holds a quarter of the world’s reserves of natural uranium and has been the world’s largest producer and exporter of natural uranium for the past four years, yet since it achieved independence in 1991, it has never had a nuclear power plant. In the Soviet era, in the 1980s, Kazakhstan did have an NPP in Aktau operating on a BN-350 fast-breeder reactor, which was decommissioned in the 1990s. But the country retained the infrastructure and the wherewithal to produce nuclear energy; not just the raw materials, but the expertise.

Building a nuclear power plant is certainly no small undertaking, and many issues need to be resolved before it can even begin. In Kazakhstan, a country about to enter into an economic union with Russia and Belarus as of January 1, 2015, it seems like the considerations must also have a regional dimension.

“On May 29, a most important document was signed on the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union, according to which our countries will have a unified energy system,” Vladimir Shkolnik, president of the Kazatomprom national atomic company, explained to this newspaper. “A unified energy system will allow the distribution of energy not only in our country, but also in neighbouring Russia, perhaps in the Urals, and from then on in Russia’s western regions. We are entering into a common electricity market, which is growing, which should be built. Therefore, it is a good integration project.”

Indeed, Kazatomprom and Rosatom also signed a comprehensive programme of Kazakhstan-Russia cooperation in the peaceful uses of atomic energy, which seeks further cooperation between the two countries’ nuclear energy systems’ enterprises, including cooperation in the nuclear fuel cycle, the development of industrial research projects and joint work on increasing radiation safety.

According to Shkolnik, ever since independence, Kazakhstan has been exploring the possibility of building nuclear power plants.

“Kazakhstan has a huge nuclear legacy left over from the USSR,” Shkolnik explained. “I mean a rather developed uranium industry, developed-enough research work on the safety of nuclear plants, the huge Ulba plant [the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk], the BN-350 reactor in Aktau. Back in Soviet times, a study was made and a major nuclear station was planned to be built in Balkhash. Due to insufficient funds the project did not materialise. Then we returned to a project to build an NPP in Aktau. A feasibility study has been prepared, but again, due to a number of reasons, it has not been implemented.”

“It is understood that a location in Kurchatov will be considered in the first place. But a decision to build it will be made and a station will only be built after issues related to selling electricity and to seismic zoning are resolved,” Shkolnik stressed. “In modern Kazakhstan, such zoning has never been carried out [in Kurchatov], unlike at the Balkhash site and in Aktau, where seismic studies in accordance with IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] standards were carried out. Today the situation is as follows: two places, Balkhash and Kurchatov, were chosen, where there is a need to build the station given many factors, yet the final say will be had by specialised organisations that carry out all the research and sign documents.”

Obviously, several years will pass before the first stone will be laid in the construction of Kazakhstan’s first independently-built nuclear power station. It is also obvious, though, that the country is steadily moving ahead with plans to turn from a raw materials producer to a producer of higher value-added goods and services, and a nuclear power plant is the ultimate summit in producing electricity from the atom. Given the plans to build on existing capacities and develop peaceful nuclear-related cooperation with foreign partners such as France, China and Japan, it is also obvious that new avenues for cooperation with Kazakhstan in nuclear energy will present themselves as plans to build one, and potentially two, nuclear power plants take shape in the months and years ahead.