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Rising Petrostate Kazakhstan Mulls Nuclear Power

According to Kazakh Industry and New Technologies Minister Aset Isekeshev, Kazakhstan will make a decision on whether to build an atomic power plant this year.

Speaking to a group of reporters in the capital Astana, Isekeshev said, "As a matter of fact, we are not rejecting atomic energy, as we have big uranium reserves with long-term prospects. A decision regarding the possible construction of a nuclear power plant will be adopted this year. For the time being, we are working on the supposition that we could have atomic energy produce 4 percent of our total output of electricity by 2030. However, what kind of a plant it should be, in which region it should be built, what type of a reactor it should have and many other questions, including considering safety issues, still lie ahead."

Seven years after the implosion of the USSR the Kazakh government first announced plans for the construction of a nuclear power plant near Lake Balkhash in central Kazakhstan in 1998 but following massive public protests the project was canceled. Eight years later, in November 2006 the government adopted a plan to build a nuclear power plant in the Mangistau region seven miles from Aktau, on the premises of the former fast-neutron power generation plant MAEK. The plant no longer generates electricity, its fuel is being recycled and the plant itself has placed under the national nuclear company Kazatomprom.

In 2008 the Russian-Kazakh Nuclear Power Plants joint venture was established, which began developing a new VBER-300 reactor. The Kazakh government decided to use medium VBER-300 Russian and foreign-made reactors to upgrade the Aktau site and Russian specialists worked on a feasibility study but in February 2009, the government of Kazakhstan suspended the project after disputes arose with Russia over the transfer of intellectual property rights.

Kazatomprom Vice President Sergei Iashin has no doubts about Kazakhstan’s nuclear future however, announcing that revised feasibility study for the project to build a nuclear power plant in Aktau is undergoing an appraisal by state experts and that the first power generating reactor is expected to come online in 2016.

The Kazakh government began once again discussing constructing nuclear power plants about six months ago. In December in Aktau Nazarbayev Center Kanat Saudabayev answered a foreign journalist’s question about how Kazakhstan, as a country that actively promotes nuclear-free world, build nuclear power plants by commenting, "Kazakhstan is preparing to build its own nuclear power plant. This does not contradict our common goals and move toward a nuclear-free world."

The conflicting issues of international anti-nuclear image versus domestic nuclear policy will no doubt arise during the upcoming three-day “International Conference of Mayors for Peace” in the eastern Kazakh city of Kurchatov, ironically named after the leader of the Soviet nuclear weapons project under Stalin, close by the now shuttered Semipalatinsk Test Site, where the USSR conducted the bulk of its above-ground nuclear tests.

Policy and image contradictions aside however, a further question is – why is a nuclear power plant necessary in a country so richly endowed with fossil fuels?

On 13 March, when Isekeshev presented a long-term power development plan to a meeting of the Cabinet which covered the country’s power needs to 2030, he reported that the country contains massive coal reserves for generating electricity which would at present rates of consumption last for the next 300 years, and these massive coal reserves are in addition to the country’s huge oil deposits.

But back to those public protests 14 years ago that ended the government’s plans to build a nuclear power plant near Lake Balkash. Because of the immense environmental damage and human cost that years of nuclear testing inflicted on Kazakhs living around the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the Kazakhs have a sensitivity to nuclear issues that is really only exceeded by the Japanese. Few people remember now, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union President Nursultan Nazarbayev voluntarily relinquished virtually all of the Soviet nuclear weapons stationed on Kazakh territory, even though overnight the arsenal had made Kazakhstan the possessor of the world’s fourth largest nuclear “deterrent.”

Accordingly, unless the Kazakh government can make some strenuous and cogent argument about why the country needs nuclear power, it’s a safe bet that it will once again hear from its disgruntled electorate.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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