Kazakhstan to decide on nuclear power plant in 2012
by Clare Nuttall
Kazakhstan's government is to decide by the end of this year whether to build a nuclear power plant, according to the head of state nuclear company Kazatomprom, Vladimir Shkolnik. Construction of the plant will fill a growing energy deficit in the rapidly industrialising west of the country, but it is a controversial decision given Kazakhstan's legacy as the main Soviet nuclear testing ground.
For several years Kazatomprom has been in talks with its Russian counterpart Rosatom over plans to build a nuclear reactor in the remote western town of Aktau. The two companies have already set up a joint venture, initially to carry out a feasibility study on the construction of a VBER-300 reactor. Speaking to journalists in Astana on August 15, Shkolnik said the final decision will be the Kazakh government's, and it should be made before the end of 2012. "My opinion as an expert with more than 40 years in this industry is that Kazakhstan has the right to operate a nuclear power plant. We have no less experience than any other country in the world in the safe operation of nuclear power plants," Shkolnik said.
Although Aktau is the capital of Kazakhstan's Mangystau region, in the heart of the Caspian oil basin, the region faces an energy deficit as obsolete power plants will soon have to be decommissioned at the same time as industrial activity is increasing. Western Kazakhstan's electricity needs have risen as new industries, most centred around the oil and gas sector, are launched, and the government's 2010-14 industrialisation programme progresses. As in other parts of the country, the population is growing and becoming more affluent, so consumer demand is also increasing.
Kazakhstan has abundant oil and gas, but Astana prefers to use these for export, while investing in other forms of power generation for domestic use. The Ekibastuz power plants near the northern coal basin are being expanded, and a new thermal power plant will be built at Balkhash to serve the south and centre of the country, but the country's main coal deposits are thousands of kilometres from the western oil towns.
The country's previous experience of nuclear power generation was also in Aktau, where a BN-350 fast reactor was built during the Soviet era. It was used mainly for heating and desalination before it was shut down in 1999. Today, Kazakhstan has no nuclear power stations, despite being the world's largest producer of uranium. However, nuclear power generation is increasingly seen as an obvious step for Kazakhstan, which produced over 19,000 tonnes of uranium in 2011, and aims to exceed 21,000 tonnes in 2012. Shkolnik acknowledged that while Kazakhstan "could manage without nuclear power," it would be more economically viable to turn to nuclear energy than to transport coal over huge distances.
This is reflected globally, as nuclear power is enjoying a resurgence in numerous countries, despite the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. Around 417 new reactors are either being built or are at the planning stage, according to the International Energy Agency, with countries looking to boost nuclear energy generation including China, India, Russia and South Korea.
Kazakhstan is, however, in a special situation because of its history as the main Soviet testing ground. More than 450 nuclear weapons were set off at the Semipalatinsk Polygon between 1949 and 1989. After independence, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev agreed with the leaders of the other Central Asian republics to make the region a nuclear weapon free zone. This makes the construction of a power plant a controversial decision. "I believe that society has yet to make a decision and vote – there should be a referendum, and people have to say they need or want," Shkolnik told journalists, but added that the dangers of nuclear energy can be overestimated by those who have never worked in the industry.
Progress on the nuclear power plant has been further delayed because of disputes between Russia and Kazakhstan over funding and ownership of the intellectual property rights for the reactor. Construction of the Aktau reactor was due to start in 2011, but planning was put on hold for several years, until talks resumed in 2009. Recently, Kazakhstan and Russia have increased cooperation in the civil nuclear sector, signing a new cooperation deal in June. However, the Aktau reactor is not the only option for Kazakhstan, which has also been in early stage talks with Japanese companies over the potential construction of a second reactor near Lake Balkhash.