There is once again talk in Kazakhstan of constructing a nuclear power plant (NPP) -- a proposal that's been debated on and off since the late 1990s. This time, the idea seems to have quickly picked up momentum.
President Vladimir Putin proposed Russian help to build such a plant when he met with Kazakhstan's new president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, in Moscow on April 3.
A day later, Deputy Kazakh Energy Minister Magzum Mirzagaliev said there was no "concrete decision" to construct a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan, but he also revealed that officials have already chosen a site for such a project near the town of Ulken, in the southeastern Almaty Province.
Both Russia and Kazakhstan have agreements with many nations about cooperation in civilian atomic-energy use, but the Kazakh-Russian nuclear relationship is probably the most complicated of all.
Putin's overture to Toqaev was far from the first time Moscow has offered help building a nuclear plant in Kazakhstan, though it was interesting that Putin decided to publicly repeat the proposal to Toqaev, who only became Kazakhstan's president on March 20 and was making his first official visit abroad in that capacity.
It is also far from the first time the issue of nuclear power has been raised in Kazakhstan. It is a difficult sell in a land that has seen more nuclear tests than virtually any place on the planet. Between 1949 and 1989, when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, 340 underground and 116 atmospheric tests were conducted in the Semipalatinsk region of northeastern Kazakhstan. Health problems continue to plague residents of the area.
No wonder Kazakhstan's Energy Ministry released a public statement on April 4 assuring the public would be consulted about building any such plant until "after public hearings and consent from local executive bodies on the territory where construction of an [nuclear power plant] is possibly planned."
On April 3, Russian media carried the headline Putin Offers Toqaev The Construction Of An NPP In Kazakhstan Using Russian Technology. Putin was quoted as saying the two countries would be moving to a new form of cooperation.
By "Russian technology," Putin presumably means Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear company.
China has pushed its Belt and Road Initiative global trade network forward by extending huge loans and sending Chinese companies and workers to some of the world's poorer countries. The loans, and the reliance on Chinese companies for training, spare parts, repairs, and such, promise to keep these countries dependent on China for decades to come, simultaneously increasing Beijing's influence around the globe.
Rosatom does the same thing. The company boasts a $100 billion portfolio, and its website says it has 36 nuclear reactor projects in 12 countries -- in places like Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Belarus, Iran, Turkey, Hungary, and China. Rosatom submits bids for every nuclear-power-plant contract worldwide. And Rosatom also has nuclear cooperation agreements with countries in South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe.
The cost of a nuclear power plant starts at around $8 billion, and that is in cases where there is only one reactor, such as Rosatom's VVER-1000. During Putin's visit to India in October, Rosatom signed a contract to construct six VVER reactors at a new site in India, in addition to the four other reactors Rosatom is already contracted to build at India's Kudankulum site. Two VVER reactors are already in operation there.
Russian financial institutions usually loan most, or nearly all, of the money to those countries for the construction of such plants, and Russian nuclear-fuel provider TVEL frequently receives the contract for fuel supplies.
Different Sort Of Customer
Kazakhstan would be a different sort of customer for Rosatom. It has been the world's leading uranium producer and exporter since 2009. And Kazakhstan does more than just extract uranium. State company Kazatomprom has worked for years, and is now able to take uranium through all the cycles, from raw uranium to nuclear fuel. From 2007 to 2017, Kazatomprom owned a 10-percent stake in Westinghouse.
So Kazakhstan has a large domestic source of uranium and can produce its own nuclear fuel; and Kazatomprom has nuclear technicians trained mostly by Russia but also some trained in Japan, France, and other countries.
Russia and Kazakhstan cooperate to mine uranium in Kazakhstan. Putin mentioned "six Russian-Kazakh enterprises for extracting and enriching uranium."
Kazatomprom exported nearly 15,290 tons of uranium in 2018, and about 17 percent of that went to Russia.
Kazakhstan and Russia established the International Uranium Enrichment Center in Angarsk in 2007. As its name suggests, the center will provide low-enriched uranium (LEU) to interested parties. The center has been internationally hailed as ensuring a steady supply of uranium for nuclear reactors while not transferring the technology to enrich uranium.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Kazakhstan's government also established an LEU bank at Kazakhstan's Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Oskemen, "a physical reserve of up to 90 metric tons of low enriched uranium suitable to make fuel for a typical light water reactor."
The IAEA and Russia have an agreement on transporting the uranium to the LEU bank in Oskemen.
The April 4 statement from Kazakhstan's Energy Ministry said nuclear-power-plant technologies from five countries, "including Rosatom," were being studied. But the ministry also said other projects were being reviewed, such as more gas-fired plants, hydropower projects, and coal-fired thermal plants.
Russian news agency Interfax noted in its report that Russian Ambassador to Kazakhstan Aleksei Boroodavkin said in February, "We are hopeful that a decision will be taken soon for the construction of an atomic power station that we hope Rosatom will construct."
When the idea of building a nuclear plant was floated at the end of the 1990s, the chosen location was the shore of Lake Balkhash in eastern Kazakhstan, roughly between Almaty and Astana (now Nur-Sultan).
This plan was scrapped (and eventually South Korea's Samsung C&T Corp helped build a 1,320-megawatt, coal-fired, thermal plant there); but by 2006 there was a plan to build a nuclear plant near Aqtau, in western Kazakhstan on the Caspian coast. Western Kazakhstan is where most of the country's oil-and-gas fields are located, but the region continues to experience power shortages.
That plan, too, was discarded; but in 2009, with Russian offers of help, there was discussion of building a nuclear facility in Kurchatov, in northern Kazakhstan in the Semipalatinsk area where the nuclear tests were conducted in the Soviet days. In May 2014, Russia and Kazakhstan signed a memorandum of cooperation on the construction of a nuclear plant in Kurchatov.
When, and why, officials decided on Ulken in southeastern Kazakhstan is unclear. Almaty is no longer Kazakhstan's capital, but it remains the most populous city in the country. However, when former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev decided to move the capital north, earthquakes in the Almaty area were one of the reasons he gave for transferring the capital.
It is not yet a certainty that Kazakhstan will build a nuclear power plant. Talk of building one has sparked protests in the past in Kazakhstan, so it is not something Kazakh officials would want to move on quickly.
But the speed at which Kazakh officials did move once Putin made his offer suggests it has been on the minds of Kazakh officials, and the February comments from Russia's ambassador indicate this has been a topic of recent conversations between Russian and Kazakh representatives.