Uranium and Nuclear Energy: Kazakhstan’s Journey Towards Powerful Global Alliance

Kazakhstan holds a valuable resource that is becoming increasingly crucial in the world’s transition away from hydrocarbons: uranium. With 12% of the world’s uranium resources, the nation has emerged as a dominant player in the uranium market, garnering attention from the west and the wider international community.

Alessia Canuto.

In 2021 alone, Kazakhstan produced approximately 21,800 tones of elemental uranium (tU), solidifying its position as a vital uranium supplier. Over the past two decades, the uranium industry has experienced significant growth. In 2009, the nation surpassed all others to become the world’s leading uranium producer, accounting for nearly 28% of global production. By 2019, Kazakhstan’s share had surged to an astonishing 43% of the world’s uranium output. Despite a slight decline in production due to low uranium prices and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kazakhstan’s uranium sector remains resilient, with production reaching 21,819 tU in 2021.

Driving Kazakhstan’s uranium industry is the National Atomic Company Kazatomprom, the world’s largest producer and seller of natural uranium. Out of the country’s thirteen uranium mining projects, three are wholly owned by Kazatomprom, and ten are joint ventures with foreign equity holders. In 2020, Kazatomprom’s share of uranium production reached 10,736 tU, outperforming major global competitors such as Orano, Cameco, and Uranium One. 

Kazakhstan’s strategic partnerships with international entities have been instrumental in extending its reach in global markets. 

In October 2015, Kazatomprom signed an agreement with Centrus Energy, facilitating the marketing of Kazakh uranium in the U.S. This collaboration not only opened new market opportunities but also diversified Kazakhstan’s supply options. Furthermore, in April 2016, Kazatomprom forged a vital partnership with U.S.-based Converdyn. This agreement allowed the Central Asian country to offer uranium for sale in the form of natural uranium hexafluoride (UF6), providing customers with increased supply options and solidifying its position as a reliable and versatile uranium supplier. 

Looking ahead, Kazakhstan is ambitiously charting its course towards nuclear power development. The government’s draft master plan of power generation development until 2030 targets a nuclear electricity share of approximately 4.5%, necessitating an estimated 900 megawatt electrical (MWe) of nuclear capacity. As its current generating capacity stands at around 20 gigawatt electrical (GWe), the plan aims to meet projected 2030 energy needs of 150 terawatt-hour (TWh). 

To realize its nuclear ambitions, Kazakhstan has been evaluating various suppliers. In February 2022, the country’s Energy Director revealed a shortlist of six suppliers being considered, including NuScale Power, the U.S.-Japanese consortium of GE Hitachi, and prominent players such as Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power, China National Nuclear Corporation, Russia’s Rosatom, and Britain’s EDF Energy. These partnerships are key to advancing Kazakhstan’s nuclear power aspirations and contributing to global efforts for sustainable energy.

As a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Kazakhstan has demonstrated its commitment to responsible nuclear practices. The country adheres to robust safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ensuring the responsible management of its nuclear facilities and the exported uranium. Furthermore, the nation’s role in dismantling approximately 1,300 nuclear warheads after gaining independence showcases its dedication to global security and non-proliferation. 

An integrated nuclear infrastructure review (INIR) mission was conducted at the government’s request in 2016 to assess various aspects, including legal and regulatory frameworks, radioactive waste management, and stakeholder involvement. Such cooperation underscores Kazakhstan’s dedication to upholding international standards and best practices in its nuclear endeavors. 

The EU and Western countries also place great emphasis on nuclear safety and non-proliferation concerns. Kazakhstan’s commitment to responsible nuclear practices, its adherence to safeguards agreements with the IAEA, and its non-nuclear weapons status under the NPT provide reassurance to the global community. Strengthening ties with Kazakhstan in the uranium market reinforces the shared commitment to upholding international nuclear safety standards.

The EU and Western countries are major consumers of energy, and their nuclear power infrastructure is a cornerstone of their efforts to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. With nuclear power offering a low-carbon energy option, securing a stable supply of uranium is vital to maintain the continuous operation of their nuclear reactors. 

Kazakhstan’s position as a leading uranium producer makes it an attractive partner for long-term supply contracts, ensuring these nations’ energy security and diversification. Western countries are pioneers in the development of advanced nuclear technologies, including small modular reactors and next-generation reactors. As these technologies progress, the demand for specific uranium compositions may rise. 

Collaborating with Kazakhstan in exploring and investing in innovative nuclear technologies can provide a win-win scenario for both sides, with the EU and Western countries benefiting from Kazakhstan’s uranium resources and Kazakhstan gaining access to cutting-edge nuclear expertise. By engaging in uranium-related partnerships with Kazakhstan offers Western countries a chance to foster stronger diplomatic ties and influence regional dynamics. 

Finally, Western companies’ investments in Kazakhstan’s uranium mining and exploration can stimulate economic growth and support Kazakhstan’s nuclear energy aspirations, contributing to the development of local expertise and infrastructure by fostering a sustainable and mutually beneficial uranium industry.

The author is a graduate in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from LUISS University in Rome. Canuto focuses on international relations, geopolitics, international law, and economic development. 

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