Progress in Kazakh ambitions

12 August 2009

Kazakhstan reported a significant increase in uranium production during the first half of 2009. In addition to aiming to become the world's leading uranium supplier, the country is working to become an exporter of fabricated fuel and reactor technology.


State-owned nuclear energy company KazAtomProm said that uranium output during the first six months of 2009 totalled over 6000 tonnes, exceeding production plans by 9%. This, the company said, represents a 57% increase in output compared with the first half of 2008. Kazakhstan plans to produce some 8000 tonnes of uranium during the second half of 2009.


Uranium-producing enterprises are implementing their plans to bring new deposits into production, KazAtomProm said. It said that Akbastau JSC and Baiken-U LLP have started pilot production, while mines at the Kharasan 1 and Irkol deposits have been put into operation. Meanwhile, construction work at the Kharasan 2 and Semizbai deposits continues. In addition, work is in progress to increase production at the South Inkai deposit, while refinery plants are under construction at Karatau LLP.


Construction is also underway of two plants in Kazakhstan for the production of sulfuric acid, used in extracting uranium at in-situ leach (ISL) mines. During the first half of 2009, the design of the 500,000 tonne per year plant in Zhanakorganskiy region was finalised. Infrastructure for the plant, including road and rail access is nearing completion, while the power transmission line is now in place. Operation of the $216 million plant is scheduled to begin in 2011. Equipment ordered from Italy for the 180,000 tonne per year plant in Stepnogorsk, which is set to start operating next year, is ready to be shipped to Kazakhstan.


Branching out into fuel and reactors


Although it looks set to meet its target of becoming the world's leading uranium supplier, KazAtomProm said that its main priority remains "the establishment of a vertically integrated company having all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle and producing the final product of high value added."


The company said it is currently conducting a preliminary technical and economic assessment of the joint Kazakh-Canadian project for the production of uranium hexafluoride (UF6). Canada's Cameco and KazAtomProm announced the formation of the Ulba Conversion LLP joint venture in June 2008, with the aim of developing a 12,000 tonne UF6 conversion facility in Kazakhstan. The new company will be 51% owned by KazAtomProm, with Cameco holding 49%.


France's state-owned Areva continues to transfer fuel fabrication technology to KazAtomProm. Last June, KazAtomProm signed a strategic agreement in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle with Areva. Under the terms of the agreement, Katco - a 51%-49% joint venture between Areva and KazAtomProm - should produce 4000 tonnes of uranium per year until 2039, sales of which will be made entirely by Areva. Areva will also provide engineering assistance to construct fuel fabrication lines with an annual capacity of 1200 tonnes in KazAtomProm's metallurgy plant in Ulba. The installation will include a dedicated 400-tonne line specifically for fuel for French-designed reactors. The joint venture's foundation documents are expected to be signed during a visit by President Nickolas Sarkozy to Kazakhstan in October.


KazAtomProm said that, in addition, qualification of fuel pellets for use reactors in Japan, the USA and China is also being carried out, which will allow the company to expand its presence on the world nuclear fuel market.


In addition to the front-end of the fuel cycle, Kazakhstan is also seeking to get involved in nuclear power reactor design and construction. KazAtomProm said that "big progress" has been made in the implementation of a joint project with Russia to design the VBER-300 reactor for use at the Aktau site in Kazakhstan. It said that an intergovernmental agreement on the project is being prepared for signing. The company aims to subsequently export the reactor design.


In April, KazAtomProm signed a memorandum of understanding with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Company (CGNPC) to form a joint venture that would specialize in the construction of nuclear power plants in China, as well as construction management and oversight. KazAtomProm said that it is now conducting a feasibility study on the project and that more specific decisions about the project would be made once this study is completed.