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Public Vote on Nuclear Power Plant Sparks Debate in Kazakhstan

  • Kazakhstan is planning to hold a referendum on building a nuclear power plant to address energy and environmental challenges.
  • The choice of a construction partner, potentially Russia's Rosatom, raises concerns about safety, sovereignty, and geopolitical risks.
  • Public opinion is divided, with some favoring nuclear power for energy independence and others expressing concerns about safety and environmental impact.

Kazakhstan’s power sector is at a crossroads, a point where the government wants to diversify and reduce CO2 emissions. Nuclear power is viewed as at least a partial solution to existing challenges, and officials have taken the first step toward building a reactor by scheduling a nationwide referendum. 

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the referendum in late June without scheduling a specific date for it. The country has abundant oil and natural gas reserves, but the president stressed a need to develop other energy sources to power economic growth. He went on to reassure his audience that the government was committed to developing its nuclear energy potential in a well-considered manner. 

“The country has great opportunities for the development of nuclear energy; it is important to use them correctly and effectively. The final decision on this issue will be made by the people,” the presidential press service quoted Tokayev as saying in an address to journalists. 

The immediate question on most people’s minds is who will help Kazakhstan build a reactor? There are four entities from Russia, France, China and South Korea under consideration for the job. Officials say the choice will be made after the referendum, provided the issue receives a popular endorsement. Given that Kazakhstan has a tightly controlled political environment, a “yes” vote seems likely. 

But many fear that geopolitics will prompt Kazakh authorities to award the construction contract to Rosatom, the Russian state-controlled firm. Some even believe it’s already a done deal, just waiting for the right time to announce it. That likelihood is fueling unease about safety and sovereignty risks. 

Aset Nauryzbaev, an economist and a former top official at KEGOC, the company operating Kazakhstan’s electricity grid, believes a Russian-built reactor will undermine Kazakhstan’s long-practiced foreign policy of multi-vectorism, in which Kazakhstan balances relations among global and regional powers so that none exerts controlling influence on Astana’s policy choices.

“By building its own nuclear power plant here, Russia will be able to keep Kazakhstan in its field of influence – we will depend on their production technologies, fuel, specialists, and they will certainly use this leverage when necessary,” Nauryzbayev told Eurasianet. 

Vadim Nee, director of the Social and Environmental Fund, an environmental non-profit, is also concerned about the prospect that Astana, by deepening its nuclear partnership with Moscow, could face geopolitical risks. “While developing green energy, the United States, the European Union, Japan, and South Korea are at the same time trying to limit Russia’s role in the nuclear industry, and we could find ourselves caught between two fires,” Nee told Eurasianet. 

Timur Zhantikin, general director of the Kazakhstan Nuclear Power Plant company, said that the uranium needed to fuel a nuclear plant would be domestically sourced, thereby limiting Russia’s ability to exert pressure on Kazakhstan once the reactor starts operations. 

Social media chatter among Kazakhstan’s commentariat appears firmly against Rosatom’s involvement in any nuclear power plant project. The legacy of the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster, as well as the close calls at the Zaporizhzhiya nuclear plant during the Russia-Ukraine war, have imprinted on many the impression that Russia is lax when it comes to nuclear safety. Kazakhstan has its own complicated nuclear “history,” with nuclear power, linked to the legacy of Semipalatinsk, one of the Soviet Union’s main nuclear test sites. 

Presently, about 80 percent of electricity in Kazakhstan is produced by burning coal, another 15 percent is generated via hydropower, and the rest comes from renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, Soviet-era energy infrastructure is prone to frequent breakdowns that cause extended power outages across the country. Adding nuclear power to the current mix is seen by officials as a quick fix to existing problems. 

At the same time, nuclear energy should not be seen as a “green” energy source capable of replacing coal-fired plants without entailing risks, said Nee. “We must not forget that nuclear power plants produce hazardous waste,” Nee said. “And if an accident occurs, we risk losing one of our strategic water bodies – Lake Balkhash.” 

Since late last year, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Energy has been conducting a promotional campaign that has shown signs of swaying public opinion in favor of nuclear energy. A poll conducted by Demoscope, an independent research firm, found that 47 percent of those polled favored the construction of a nuclear plant, and 38 percent were against it. 

Skeptics believe the referendum’s outcome is already settled, but authorities want to hold it to provide political cover, in case of a future mishap. “Such strategic issues are decided from above, and a popular vote allows the authorities to shift responsibility to the people,” said Olzhas Beksultanov, an activist with the political reform movement Oyan, Qazakstan.  

By Almaz Kumenov via Eurasianet.org

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