Viewpoint: The logic of nuclear power for Central Asia

27 December 2018

Many observers were surprised this year when Uzbekistan announced its decision to build a nuclear power station, which will be the first in Central Asia in the last 30 years, writes Jurabek Mirzakhmudov, director general of UzAtom, the state nuclear agency which was established in July.

Why, we were asked, would a leading gas producer opt to go nuclear when we could easily increase our gas-fired electricity production?

We are doing so largely because of growth. Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation, has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The World Bank is forecasting GDP growth of about 5% this year and next, and 5.5% in 2020. Current projections indicate that, to match these trends and consumer demand, we will need to double electricity output by 2030.

We could of course do this by burning our ample supplies of natural gas, but we have chosen a different course. Our parliament recently ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, having signed the accord in April last year. We are committed to dramatically reducing our consumption of natural gas for power generation to free it for other higher-value purposes, including in particular the petrochemicals industry.

We now plan to make our transmission systems more efficient, to renovate our existing gas-fired and hydroelectrical facilities, and to build new ones, and to adopt renewable energy sources such as solar. But as part of the strategic energy plan supported by President Mirziyoyev, we believe it to be a mistake to keep converting gas to electricity just because current gas prices are low. Instead, we have chosen to build a Russian-designed third-generation VVER two-unit NPP with a capacity of 2.4 GW. We anticipate this plant will generate approximately 15% of Uzbekistan’s power needs by 2030. This will free up an estimated 3.5 billion cubic meters of gas annually -- more than half a billion dollars at current price levels.

Today, nuclear power is one of the most reliable and environmentally safe types of energy available. In the multiple agreements being prepared in association with this massive project, we anticipate the highest environmental and safety standards. Moreover, Rosatom, our partner in the project, is currently developing a fourth generation technology enabling reuse of reactor waste, such that we may be able to collaborate in this area as well.

In the month ahead, we will be preparing an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract and, based on a geological survey, selecting a location for the facility.

The programme will take full advantage of Uzbekistan's existing knowledge base in the nuclear field. Up to 8000 workers will be needed for the construction work and another 2500 will be needed to operate the plant after its launch.

We recognise that, as a newcomer to nuclear power generation, we have much to do beyond the construction of the nuclear power plant. We will need to develop the regulatory and educational infrastructure to support the programme. Together, Russia’s regulator, Rostekhnadzor, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be helping our own new independent regulator to gain the expertise it will need, and on IAEA advice we will be adapting Russia’s standards and regulations.

Uzbekistan is no novice in the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Over the past 60 years our country has been actively researching nuclear technologies at our Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Academy of Sciences, which operates a 10 MW research reactor. We have been an active and committed member of the IAEA since 1994, and are already in discussions with its experts to ensure full compliance with international regulations.

Many steps have been taken already to solve the personnel challenges with regard to construction of the nuclear power plant, including the creation of the educational programmes for training students in the sphere of nuclear power.

But nuclear power plants don’t spring up overnight. We expect it will take 8-10 years before the plant begins contributing to our energy needs. In the meantime, the existing electrical power production and transmission systems are scheduled for wide-ranging modernisation and expansion, including 42 new hydro power stations and 32 existing stations scheduled for modernisation. Up to 7100 km of power lines and 2500 transformer points will be either modernised or built.

This is a huge undertaking where international expertise and investment are required, and there is active cooperation in this area with leading companies of the USA, South Korea, Germany, Russia, France, China, and many other countries.

Step by step, we are seeking to engage with the world’s leading nations and their leading businesses in accordance with the principles of mutual respect and trust. Ultimately what we expect to gain from all this is a balanced energy future which would simply be impossible without nuclear power generation.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News