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Central Asia Poised To Become The Atomic El Dorado

  • Bruce Pannier

Experts say that by 2030 uranium mining might triple

Experts say that by 2030 uranium mining might triple

With the Kazakh president signing an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation with India, there are signs that uranium-rich Central Asia may be poised to take advantage of the globe's anticipated move toward nuclear power.

Under the agreement signed on January 24, Astana will supply nuclear fuel to Indian atomic plants.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev's Kazakhstan ranks second in the world in explored uranium reserves, and mining output rose nearly 30 percent last year.

India, meanwhile, ranks in the top 10 globally in number of nuclear reactors, and has been desperately looking for supplies to fuel them.

The deal makes Kazakhstan the fourth country aside from the United States, France, and Russia to supply India with uranium.

On his four-day visit, Nazarbaev will have the honor of being the first Central Asian leader to be "chief guest" at the Indian capital's Republic Day parade on January 26.

But he might not be the last.

Uzbekistan, too, is a world leader in terms of uranium output, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can boast supplies of the element, putting Central Asia as a whole in a prime position as the world expresses newfound interest in nuclear power.

As many as 300 new nuclear power plants could come on line by 2030, and 30 plants are already under construction worldwide. But in 2006, uranium producers already could only meet 62 percent of global demand, leading experts to predict that uranium mining would have to triple by 2030 if all the plants envisioned were to become reality.

Robert Vance, an analyst with the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris with an expertise in uranium resources, says the prospects are looking good for nuclear technology -- and uranium producers.

"The NEA has...recently published a nuclear energy outlook, which says by 2030 projections for low nuclear growth will require as much as 70,000 tons of uranium a year to even higher nuclear growth that would require over 100,000 tons a year," Vance says.

"Right now about 40,000 to 45,000 tons is being mined every year around the world, so there's a need to ramp up this industry and Central Asia, and particularly Kazakhstan, will play a very central role."

Vance notes that governments looking to wean themselves off fossil fuels as they look for future electricity production "are now looking at the nuclear option as a way of providing baseload electricity without any carbon dioxide emissions."

Soviet Uranium Legacy

As the Soviet Union's primary supplier of uranium, Central Asia developed the infrastructure and gained experience needed to extract the key nuclear-fuel component.

Since then, foreign investment has introduced modern equipment and safer and more efficient mining techniques. And while the infrastructure could still use some updating, Vance says, overall the region is well positioned to dramatically increase exports.

"In technical terms I think they're very well equipped. When they were a part of the Soviet Union there was a lot of uranium extraction conducted there and in terms of the extractive process and the ability to do that they're very well equipped," Vance says.

"Where there may be some challenges remaining have to do with infrastructure -- just things like roads, electricity, providing the materials required to develop these mines. But in terms of technical expertise they're very well equipped."
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev


Richard Lockhart, a senior editor at "Energo," a weekly publication of the Edinburgh-based energy analysis group Newsbase, says that Kazakhstan, in particular, is looking to become the world's largest uranium exporter.

The state-owned company Kazatomprom plans to mine 11,900 tons of uranium this year, after recording a huge jump by mining 8,500 tons in 2008.

And Kazatomprom has even grander plans in store for 2018, when it is looking to export approximately 30,000 tons of uranium.

Lockhart says Kazakhstan has been exhibiting its deal-making skills in the nuclear arena in recent months.

"In November, Chinese and Kazakh companies sealed a quite groundbreaking deal whereby two Chinese nuclear power companies -- that's Jang Dong Nuclear Power Company and the China National Power Corporation, both operate nuclear reactors -- they are going to team up with Kazatomprom to build new nuclear power plants in China," Lockhart says.

"In return, Kazakhstan is going to give these two Chinese firms a 49 percent equity stake in a joint venture to mine, to develop new uranium deposits in Kazakhstan."

Deals With The East

Most of Central Asia's exported uranium is currently going to East Asia -- China, Japan, and South Korea. But if World Nuclear Association estimates of future demand are correct, Central Asian uranium could soon be exported to Europe -- and even the United States.

NEA statistics indicate that France and Lithuania "get around three-quarters of their power from nuclear energy," while Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Ukraine "get one-third or more."

The United States, which has its own uranium supplies, depends on nuclear power for 20 percent of its electricity.

The big question on many minds when considering future uranium supplies, is security.

As far as Central Asia is concerned, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes in material supplied to RFE/RL that all five Central Asian states are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and have a "comprehensive safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA."

The world nuclear body, which works with states to combat illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials, adds that all five countries have signed additional protocols with the IAEA.

In September 2006, their respective foreign ministers signed a treaty establishing Central Asia as a nuclear-weapon-free zone.
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