Kazakhstan to Hold Referendum on Nuclear Power Plant Construction

ASTANA – Kazakhstan will hold a national referendum to determine whether to construct a nuclear power plant, a subject that has sparked intense public debate. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made the announcement during his state-of-the-nation address on Sept. 1.

Photo credit: Akorda.

Tokayev emphasized that any decision regarding the construction of a nuclear power plant is an “extremely significant matter for the country’s future.” The call for a national referendum brings crucial questions about the nation’s energy policy to the forefront.

“I propose that we address this through a national referendum. Specific dates will be announced later,” Tokayev told a joint session of the Kazakh Parliament, attended by government officials as well as representatives from the public sector and non-governmental organizations.

President Tokayev acknowledged the societal divide on the issue.

“There are varying opinions on the need for a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan. On one hand, as the world’s largest uranium producer, we should have our own nuclear generation capabilities. Some experts advocate for plants with smaller reactors. On the other hand, many citizens and experts express safety concerns, especially given the tragic history of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site,” he said.

In June 2019, shortly after taking office, Tokayev had said a referendum would be held “if necessary.” However, in June this year, Vice Minister of Energy Zhandos Nurmaganbetov dismissed the idea of a referendum.

Aidarbek Khojanazarov, chairman of the Respublica Party and one of the six parties in the Mazhilis, emphasized the importance of an extensive public awareness campaign prior to the referendum. He insisted the public should be well-informed about what they will be voting for.

“To address this issue adequately, one needs expertise. This isn’t a question to be answered emotionally; it requires expert consideration,” Khojanazarov said, as quoted by Kazinform.

According to Tokayev, further public hearings are needed. The most recent one took place on Aug. 22 in Ulken village in the Almaty Region, a location previously considered “optimal” for a future plant by the government. The hearing, however, was fraught with disputes between local supporters and opposing civic activists.

In a nation still grappling with the legacy of nuclear testing, the idea of building a nuclear power plant has been debated for some time, but President Tokayev reignited the conversation in his 2021 state-of-the-nation address.

Kazakhstan is no stranger to nuclear issues. The country experienced nearly 500 nuclear tests conducted by the Soviet Union at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in eastern Kazakhstan. Nearly 1.5 million people continue to suffer the consequences, and environmental rehabilitation is ongoing in the area affected by massive radiation fallout.

The referendum announcement comes shortly after the global observance of the International Day against Nuclear Tests on Aug. 29, a date designated by the UN at Kazakhstan’s initiative in December 2009. Aug. 29 marks both the day of the first Soviet nuclear weapons test in 1949 at the Semipalatinsk site and the day the site was officially closed in 1991.

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