While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan control the headwaters of both the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, Central Asia’s mightiest rivers and both nations have extensive hydroelectric cascades that generate electricity, they are almost completely lacking in fossil fuels to power their electric stations in the winter, resulting in huge import bills which neither nation can afford.
Further bad news is that downstream neighbors Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan depend on those same waters for agricultural irrigation, which means that they want consistent flows during their growing seasons, which means a well-regulated water flow.
But fossil-fuel bereft Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have increasingly been releasing water from their hydroelectric facilities to generate electricity during the bitterly cold winter months, flooding their downstream neighbors and increasing regional tensions.
So, what to do to protect shivering Kyrgyz and Tajik citizens during the winter?
Enter former regional overlord Russia, which is proposing to develop nuclear energy in both countries.
The Russian government has just approved draft nuclear energy agreements with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on cooperation in the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
A neat solution, yes?
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Or perhaps more of a poisoned chalice?
Leading the charge on behalf of Moscow is Russian state corporation Rosatom. Rosatom Nuclear Energy State Corp. is the regulatory body of the Russian Federation’s nuclear complex.
Rosatom, like France’s Areva and U.S. companies Westinghouse and General electric, have seen their export order books battered by global aversion to nuclear power in the wake of the 11 March 2011 nuclear catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi six-reactor complex, which was effectively destroyed by a tsunami following a 9.0 marine earthquake off the coast of Japan. Rosatom sees itself as having the inside track on nuclear dealings with post-Soviet nations, which Moscow refers to as “the near abroad.”
Caught between rising hydrocarbon prices from their neighbors and rising regional political tensions, Moscow’s offer must be tempting indeed in Dushanbe and Bishkek.
What is beyond debate is that both nations face severe power shortages. The Federal Research Division of the U.S. Library of Congress reports, “Unlike its neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan has no significant exploited reserves of oil or natural gas… Emphasis on electricity is backed by abundant water power, mainly from the country's location at the mountain headwaters of the Syr Darya, one of the two largest rivers in Central Asia. On the Naryn River, chief tributary of the Syr Darya, a series of hydroelectric stations has been built, the largest of which is the Kurp-Say Hydroelectric Plant, fed by the Toktogol Reservoir in central Kyrgyzstan. Other major hydroelectric plants are located at Atabashin, Alamedin, and Uchkorgon.”
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The Library of Congress FRD notes succinctly, “Tajikistan's domestic energy supply situation is dominated by hydroelectric power. The nation is an importer of petroleum-based fuels, of which only small domestic deposits are being exploited. Insufficient access to imported oil and natural gas, a persistent problem under the Soviet system, became more acute after 1991.”
Soothing international concerns about nuclear fuel and technology being diverted to covert military programs, Rosatom soothingly notes that nuclear materials transferred to the Central Asian countries under these agreements could “not be enriched to 20 percent or exceed uranium-235 isotope, or be enriched and processed without the preliminary written approval of Russia.” The agreements would also regulate the re-export and transfer of nuclear materials by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to other nations.
Under the agreements, Rosatom and the Federal Environmental, Technological and Atomic Oversight Service (Rostekhnadzor) will be responsible for implementing the agreements on behalf of the Russian Federation, while in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, oversight will be conducted by their Energy and Industry and Emergency Situations ministries.
Ironically, Central Asia already has a dolorous nuclear legacy from the Soviet period, as it is estimated that following the 1991 collapse of the USSR more than 100 million tons of radioactive waste was left in uranium tailings dumps in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, a byproduct of the Cold War arms race.
The good news for Kyrgyzstan? The U.S. Library of Congress notes, “Only about 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan's hydroelectric power potential and only about 3 percent of the potential of its smaller streams are currently being exploited; the Naryn River is estimated to afford an additional 2,200 megawatts of easily accessible rated capacity.”
And Tajikistan? According to The INOGATE Energy Portal Program, which supports energy policy cooperation between the European Union and the INOGATE Partner Countries, “In terms of hydropower potential, Tajikistan is a world leader. Tajikistan’s hydroelectric potential is estimated at over 500 billion kWh of electricity per year (Kabutov, 2007). Currently, 16.6 billion kW are produced, which is approximately 6 percent of their total potential (EIA, 2005). The potential of small water power engineering in Tajikistan could provide more than 18 billion kWt.h per year of electricity generation.”
So, what will the two Central Asian nations chose? A quick nuclear energy fix provided by their former colonial masters, or more environmentally benign hydropower facilities, assuming that foreign funding can be found? The answer is anything but clear at present.
In the meantime, winter is settling over the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com