Kazakhstan's unique contribution

07 October 2014

Kazakhstan's economic and foreign policy ambitions will continue to sustain the country's active participation in the global nuclear market and politics, think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a new report, Kazakhstan and the Global Nuclear Order, published last week.

Kazakhstan's role in the global nuclear order is "far from minor", wrote the report's author, Togzhan Kassenova. Blessed with abundant uranium resources, the country is the world's largest uranium producer. Its nuclear sector made a major comeback after facing collapse in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union disintegrated and state-owned company Kazatomprom has been gradually pursuing an advanced nuclear fuel cycle, including the capacity to produce nuclear fuel. On the international scene, Kazakhstan's nuclear diplomacy is "rather ambitious as well," Kassenova wrote. The country hosted Iranian nuclear talks in 2013 and will host the international nuclear fuel bank expected to be launched in 2015. These examples confirm that Kazakhstan "is seeking a greater role for itself in global nuclear politics."

For now Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian state with an interest in developing nuclear energy, she wrote. "Kazakhstan's leadership believes development of nuclear energy will fuel the country's economic growth and stimulate high-tech industrialization."

In early 2014 Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev requested that the government finalize nuclear power plans by the first quarter of the year. In May 2014 Kazakhstan and Russia signed a memorandum on construction of a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government expects that by 2030 4.5% of all electricity will come from a nuclear source.

Like any country choosing nuclear power, Kazakhstan will face a number of universal challenges, Kassenova wrote. Key among them are financing, nuclear safety, nuclear security and non-proliferation, and spent fuel management.

"Kazakhstan's exemplary non-proliferation record mutes any concerns that there might be an authorized misuse of nuclear technology for non-peaceful purposes. However, since nuclear technology is inherently dual-use, Kazakhstan will need to invest additional efforts into ensuring that the risk of unauthorized diversion of any nuclear material and nuclear technology in its possession is minimized."

Another common challenge faced by all countries relying on nuclear power for producing electricity is the issue of spent fuel and nuclear waste management. Kazakhstan does not have plans to reprocess spent fuel, while "not a single country in the world has succeeded in building a permanent repository so far."

Kazakhstan case already maintains significant amounts of spent fuel from a shut-down Soviet-era BN-350 fast-breeder reactor and nuclear waste accumulated during the Soviet period as a result of uranium production.

The BN-350 fast-breeder reactor generated electricity and desalinized water for nearby towns and bred plutonium for the Soviet weapons program. Spent fuel from BN-350 contained ten tonnes of highly enriched uranium and three tonnes of plutonium, Kassenova wrote. Since the material presented a proliferation risk, the US Department of Energy assisted Kazakhstan with removing spent fuel from the reactor site and transporting it for long-term storage at a better-protected site. Spent fuel was placed in 60 specially designed dry casks that were initially placed on site. The casks weighed 100 tonnes each, and it took 12 shipments to transport all of the spent fuel to the Baikal-1 fuel storage site at the former nuclear testing site in Semipalatinsk.

"Eventually Kazakhstan will need to think of permanent storage for the spent fuel it already has and spent fuel it will generate if its builds nuclear power plants."

The problem of nuclear waste, including uranium tailings, "remains unresolved" for Kazakhstan.

"In 2001 Kazatompom suggested that Kazakhstan could import foreign nuclear waste and use the income to dispose of (bury) all waste - Kazakhstan's own and imported - at once. Public opposition muted those plans. When Kazakhstan signed the agreement on establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia in 2006, it accepted an obligation not to import foreign nuclear waste. That means Kazakhstan will need to use other ways to finance its nuclear waste disposal."

Domestically, Kazakhstan will need to approach the development of nuclear energy "with extreme care", she wrote. "The economic, technological, and energy security benefits of nuclear power should not take attention away from inherent challenges that nuclear energy development presents for newcomers. Nuclear security and safety, even stronger non-proliferation measures, required financial investment, and spent fuel and waste management require serious consideration."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News