Kazakhstan will hold a referendum in the near future to decide whether to build its first nuclear power plant, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in his annual address to the Kazakh people in September.
The government of Kazakhstan, which is the vastest and resource-richest Central Asian nation, has long discussed the idea, citing the need to diversify its power generation capacity, and has even identified a proposed site for the plant in the south-eastern Almaty region.
“We have the technology, we have the resources and we have the will to develop nuclear power generation, provided that the people of Kazakhstan vote in favour of such a move in the national referendum”, Kazakhstan’s deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko told a press conference in Astana, attended by Euractiv.
He added that a precise date had not yet been set but would be announced “in due course.”
According to Astana-based expert Issatay Minuarov, the referendum is likely to yield a positive answer, and open the way to the construction of the first nuclear power plant.
“In general, people are not against the idea,” he said, adding that some fears remain due to the country’s history with nuclear power. He referred to the nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk in northeast Kazakhstan, where the USSR conducted 456 nuclear tests from 1949 until 1989 with little regard for their effect on the local people or environment.
Reservations on nuclear despite huge potential
Today’s Kazakhstan is an undisputed leader in uranium mining, accounting for 42% of world production, with the Kazatomprom National Atomic Company accounting for 22%, the state fund Samruk Kazyna reported on 29 August.
Kazatomprom is therefore the world’s largest uranium producer, with its subsidiaries, affiliates and joint ventures developing 26 deposits grouped into 14 uranium mining companies.
But in spite of these riches, Kazakhstan abandoned nuclear energy after the Soviet era due to environmental and proliferation concerns and a desire to project a new image as a responsible and peace-loving country.
Despite inheriting a large stockpile of nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan gave up this arsenal and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.
“On 29 August, the world observed the UN International Day against Nuclear Tests, the same day Kazakhstan closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in 1991 and voluntarily relinquished the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, inherited from the Soviet Union,” Vassilenko said during the press conference.
“This action underscores our unwavering commitment to global stability and a nuclear-weapon-free world,” he added.
Nuclear balancing act
But the race towards strategically important minerals led the country to envision a change in its energy mix and include more nuclear in a bid to reach its carbon neutrality goals it set for 2060.
Today, Kazakhstan’s main source of electricity is coal, which accounts for around 70% of the country’s power generation and is among the cheapest in the world to produce. Adding nuclear power to the mix seems a logical step, but not without some delicate geopolitical considerations.
“We’re now considering France, South Korea, Russia, and China as countries to work with us on this nuclear plant,” said expert Issatay Minuarov, adding that it will require a certain amount of political tact and balance to manage the expectations of these different actors.
A source close to the issue confirmed to Euractiv that building the nuclear power plant is a geopolitical conundrum for Astana.
“On the one hand, the Kazakhs cannot risk being sanctioned by the EU, their main trading partner, by joining forces with Russia. On the other, aligning only with an EU country like France would send a very unpleasant signal to Moscow,” the source said.
The source recalled that the Kremlin used the perceived threat of a nuclear-capable Ukraine as one of the justifications for its invasion of the country in 2022.
“We’re not crazy enough to develop nuclear weapons,” Minuarov said, adding that Astana’s strong opposition to nuclear weapons and diplomatic efforts in this direction speak for themselves.
Renewed international interest
Kazakhstan’s reserves of uranium and other strategic minerals are now being eagerly courted by other international players, as evidenced by French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Astana on 1-2 November.
“I do not underestimate the geopolitical difficulties, the pressures and sometimes the jostling to which you may be subjected. France looks to you with great consideration, respect and friendship”, Macron declared in Astana.
France is the fifth largest foreign investor in Kazakhstan, ahead of China, thanks in particular to the presence of the oil group TotalEnergies, which jointly operates the large Kachagan field in the Caspian Sea. Bilateral trade amounted to €5.3 billion in 2022, mainly in hydrocarbons, and Kazakhstan also supplies France with almost 40% of its uranium.
Following Macron’s diplomatic trip, several contracts and declarations were signed, including a joint declaration of intent between France and Kazakhstan on cooperation in the field of strategic raw materials.
“Do we really have a choice?” commented a source close to the matter. “With the fiasco of French policy in Africa, and Niger in particular, Central Asia is going to take on more and more importance in the minds of Europeans.”
“But we are not the only ones looking in that direction”, the source said, as China and Turkey in particular are seeking to carve out a place for themselves in Central Asia.