Uzbekistan has announced plans to develop its nuclear energy capacities to support economic growth and development.
The advantages, risks, and threats that nuclear power can bring are discussed in this interview with Margarita Kalinina-Pohl.
Ms. Margarita Kalinina-Pohl (formerly, Sevcik) is a senior program manager and research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. During her 22-year career at CNS, Ms. Kalinina-Pohl held various administrative and research positions at CNS, including managing CNS regional office in Almaty, Kazakhstan (1999-2001). In the past five years she has been conducting research related to nuclear and radiological security with a special focus on Central Asia and other former Soviet states. She also works on promoting gender equality and increasing representation of women in the field of nuclear security worldwide. She authored and co-authored articles and reports on uranium tailings, security of radiological sources, applications of open source tools to nuclear security and empowering women in the nuclear field.
What is the state of the global nuclear energy industry today? Has coronavirus had any effect on the nuclear energy, or brought any disruptions, slowdowns, or cancellations of nuclear power plant construction in some countries of the world?
We have yet to fully understand the full scope of economic, societal, and environmental impacts of the coronavirus on individual countries and the world. To me, this pandemic revealed how vulnerable and ill-prepared we are to deal with a world-wide calamity. On one side, we see reports that the pandemic has some positive impacts on the global environment, as seen with the global shelter-in-place and the levels of air pollution that have dropped because of the overall decline in world travel. On the other side, countries’ efforts to curb the spread of the virus have led to significant increases in consumer and medical waste of single-use and disposable items, many of them containing chlorine and other harmful chemicals.
National recycling programs and waste disposal facilities either halted their operations or operate in limited capacity. The temporary decline in air pollution cannot compensate for the exacerbation of other environmental problems, such as the increased levels of toxins, plastic and other harmful materials piling up in our landfills and oceans during the pandemic. Much like the coronavirus, nuclear power has a mixed relationship with the environment. The main argument in support of nuclear energy is that it is considered a clean and sustainable energy. Nuclear power plants (NPPs) are believed to have a minimal carbon footprint, unlike fossil fuel plants. NPPs also operate at a significantly higher capacity than other renewable energy sources (wind, solar). However, NPPs produce nuclear waste, and the nuclear energy industry is yet to come up with a sustainable way to permanently dispose of radioactive waste, which can remain dangerous for thousands of years. NPPs are also expensive to build, costing as much as $10 billion.
International security expert communities, especially those focusing on nuclear security, examine the safety and security of NPPs. The Three Mile Island (USA), Chernobyl (Ukraine, USSR), and Fukushima (Japan) accidents cannot be ignored when the safety of NPPs is discussed. Another important issue surrounding the nuclear power controversy is the security of NPPs and their vulnerability to terrorist attacks or sabotage. Despite its low probability, this kind of action can lead to high-consequence disasters. Another concern is that a peaceful nuclear program can provide the basic foundation for a nuclear weapons program because of the scientific principles and technologies involved.
When it comes to the energy production at operational NPPs, I think that it may be premature to provide an accurate assessment of the pandemic’s effect on nuclear energy. There are general concerns of disruptions in global supply networks, which can be caused by the virus. With this in mind, there may be a hiccup in the initial phase of nuclear fuel cycle – uranium mining – as top uranium producers, Kazakhstan and Canada, have either reduced or suspended their uranium production during the virus outbreak. NPPs are considered a part of critical infrastructure and they have safety and security cultures instilled among their personnel, as well as contingency plans on how to ensure smooth reactor operation in case of emergency. Essential staff remain on-site and, most importantly, NPP operators take necessary measures to ensure that there are no breaches in physical security at their facilities and that all security procedures remain in place.
One can certainly expect slowdowns or cancellations of nuclear power plant construction, as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a general economic slowdown across the globe. According to the World Nuclear Association, about 30 countries are considering, planning, or starting nuclear power programs. Uzbekistan is one of these countries. I anticipate that some countries, which considered embarking on nuclear energy programs before COVID 19, may reassess their plans to continue construction, or postpone such plans indefinitely. Countries may also refuse to develop a nuclear energy program for other reasons. For example, Vietnam, after signing an agreement on cooperation with Russia and Japan, providing for the start of construction of the first NPP in 2014, first postponed this plan until 2019 and then suspended the construction of two planned NPPs until 2030. One of the reasons for this decision given by Hanoi was the high cost of nuclear power plants compared to the cost of traditional fuels, including coal plants.
On October 19th, 2018, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin and the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev celebrated their agreement in establishing the pathway for the construction of the first nuclear power plant (NPP). This power station would not only be the 1 first one built in the country of Uzbekistan, but in the entire region of Central Asia. The 2.4 gigawatt plant will contain two, 3rd generation, VVER-1200 reactors, which are expected to be completed by 2028, and are estimated to supply the country with 15% of its electricity by 2030
Timeline of Uzbekistan’s NPP construction
Data compiled by Robert Gluzman
President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, approved the conception for the development of nuclear energy in the country for 2019-2029, according to which it is planned to build nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 2.4 GW. Rosatom State Atomiс Energy Corporation plans to begin construction of a nuclear power plant with credit terms in 2022 near Lake Tuzkan in the Jizzakh region of Uzbekistan. Does Uzbekistan really need nuclear power? How is this decision justified?
This is a great question. I will start with an official version. According to “Uzatom” officials, there are two main motivations for Uzbekistan to develop nuclear power. These are economic growth and their wish to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Most of Uzbekistan’s electricity (about 85%) is generated by thermal power plants running on natural gas, while the rest comes from hydropower (imported from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and coal. Furthermore, “Uzatom” officials state that investing in the nuclear sector will help Uzbekistan minimize its reliance of fossil fuels. It is estimated that, by 2030, about 15% of Uzbekistan’s energy will come from nuclear sources.
While the main reasons for the NPP construction in Uzbekistan are depicted as economic and environmental, an additional analysis of why nations choose to pursue nuclear power programs reveals that political motivations play an important part in this decision. For many nations, having nuclear technologies is a matter of prestige. It shows that they belong to the “elite club” – a country with advanced technologies. So, what makes this project a political priority for Uzbekistan is that, if completed, it would be the first nuclear power plant not only in Uzbekistan but in the entire post-Soviet Central Asian region. Operating the first nuclear power plant in Central Asia will make Uzbekistan a “nuclear pioneer” and a regional leader in the area of nuclear power energy and technologies. I think that this “prestige” factor has a lot to do with Uzbekistan’s decision to develop its own nuclear energy capacity.
On April 3, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to the head of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to build a nuclear power plant using Russian technologies. Further, the authorities of Kazakhstan stated that the preliminary place for the construction of the nuclear power plant was the village of Ulken in the Almaty region, but a final decision has not yet been made. What advantages can bring CA nuclear energy? Are there any alternatives to nuclear power plants?
The idea of building a NPP in Kazakhstan is not new. As a matter of fact, as a part of the Soviet nuclear program, Kazakhstan hosted the first world’s commercial-size sodium cooled reactor BN-350 (constructed in 1972), which was located near the city of Aktau on the Caspian Sea and was used for the saltwater desalination and electric power production. The reactor was permanently shut down in 1999. Since the 1990s, the idea of building a new nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan has been debated.
Searching for the construction site of Uzbekistan’s NPP: Despite that the plant has not yet been officially named nor are there any specific details about its location, via open source and geospatial analysis, its placemanet can be estimated, and therefore monitored.
Open source and geospatial analysis suggests that the construction will progress within the circled area, found in Figure 2. B.
Data compiled by Robert Gluzman
This issue is complex for this nation. During the Soviet regime, a large territory in Kazakhstan near the town of Semipalatinsk was used for nuclear testing. Between 1949 and 1989 a total of 456 nuclear tests were conducted at the Semipalatinsk Testing Site with devastating impacts on the local population and environment. As such, there is a general sense of antipathy and resistance to anything nuclear. One of the most notable achievements of Kazakhstan in the first years of its independence was its decision to give up the Soviet nuclear weapons remaining on its territory and dismantle its expansive nuclear testing infrastructure.
However, being the world’s largest uranium producer and having nuclear fuel assembly capacities, Kazakhstan has been nurturing the idea of its own nuclear energy program, and it is not a surprise that this discussion has been revived last year between Putin and Kazakhstan’s new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. I think that Uzbekistan’s decision to develop its own nuclear energy program has also contributed to this recent development in Kazakhstan. COVID-19 may postpone this plan, like everything else.
As we discussed earlier, countries pursue nuclear energy for a variety of reasons, including economic, environmental, and political reasons. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s wish to pursue a peaceful nuclear power program are in accord with these nations’ international nonproliferation commitments. They are non-nuclear weapon state parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Article IV of this treaty does not exclude the right of state parties to develop, produce, and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
These countries are also in good standing with other nonproliferation obligations. They are state parties to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency. They ratified the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANFZ), which disallows the five Central Asian states “to research, develop, manufacture, stockpile, acquire, possess, or have any control over any nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device.”
Whether these Central Asian nations, as well as other countries in the region that may follow this path, will benefit from their own national nuclear energy programs is something that continues to be debated. We already discussed the benefits of nuclear energy, so let me focus on concerns. Both countries are prone to earthquakes, a key safety concern for that region. Proliferation of nuclear technologies in Central Asia can have serious security implications, given the region’s location and the rise of religious radicalization which appeals to marginalized youth. There is a whole range of security threats, both conventional (physical attacks, “insider” threats, etc.) and unconventional (emerging technologies such as drone attacks, cyberattacks, and others), which need to be considered and addressed by each country embarking on a path to a nuclear energy program, and each must decide for itself if the benefits of having a NPP on its territory outweigh the risks it may pose.
I am not an expert on renewable energy sources, but I think that solar and wind energy can be used as parts of Central Asian national energy strategies.
Are there any political implications in Russia’s readiness to build nuclear power plants in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan? For example, some years after the agreements on the construction of a nuclear power plant with the Russian Federation, Uzbekistan became an observer in the EAEU. Could Tashkent’s decision to obtain observer status be in any way connected with Moscow’s support with the construction of a nuclear power plant?
Yes, there are political implications for Russia to build nuclear power plants, especially in Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia found itself in political isolation from the Western world. In response, it increased its efforts to reestablish its interests in its historic sphere of influence, which is Central Asia and other former Soviet republics. Many of these efforts present themselves in the form of economic cooperation, including a relatively new alliance called the Eurasian Economic Union (2015). Nuclear cooperation is another form, one that presents both economic and political opportunities for Russia in this post-Soviet space. A Russian-built NPP in Belarus was scheduled to start its operation this year. Uzbekistan is next in line.
There is a general belief that NPPs can be “geopolitical assets,” since a relationship between a supplier and a buyer can last on average between 30-40 years and can help bolster bilateral relations. In Uzbekistan, this relationship may be even deeper, like a good marriage, as one Uzbek expert jokingly told me. Russian is still widely spoken in Uzbekistan and many technical experts received their education in Russian universities. Moreover, in 2019, Russia’s leading technical school, Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, opened a branch in Tashkent to prepare engineers and technical personnel for the future NPP. Russia has set a footprint in Uzbekistan. Nuclear cooperation is one of the tools to further establish its position in this Central Asian nation and expand its influence in the region.
Uzbekistan is recovering after years of stagnation under the authoritarian rule of the late President Islam Karimov. It has signaled its interest and aspirations to become a key regional player. To achieve this goal, Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, set his country on a path of fast-paced reforms aimed at the nation’s robust development and growth. I attribute Uzbekistan’s decision to join the EAUEE as a result of Mirziyoyev’s efforts to integrate his country into the regional and international politics and economics.
Over 70,000 people have evacuated their homes in border areas of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in May 2020 after a reservoir dam failed. This case shows that the country is not safe from technological disasters. Will Uzbekistan be able to ensure security not only in its own state, but also in neighboring states after the completion of the construction of nuclear power plants?
It would be wrong to assume that anyone is safe from technological disasters. They happen across the globe, and what matters is how a country responds to such a disaster. Having a nuclear power plant on its territory obliges a country to follow security procedures to reduce the risk of a nuclear accident. Uzbek’s possible NPP site is near a Kazakh border and this is something that needs to be addressed by both countries.
The problems of uranium tailings are still not fully resolved in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan was forced to turn to international donors for the reclamation of tailings. For example, work at Min-Kush and Mailuu-Suu was carried out by an Austrian company that developed a technology for transferring waste and controlling the safety of its transportation. Can we suppose that in case of a new nuclear power plant construction in Central Asia, the issues of tailings will again require the participation of international donors?
Unfortunately, problems associated with abandoned uranium mines and uranium tailings, which contain radioactive waste byproducts of uranium mining, in areas of Central Asia (mostly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) that are prone to natural disasters and other environmental threats still remain unsolved. This issue has been addressed at high-level international forums, including the UN General Assembly. Currently, there are international efforts to clean up contaminated territories, spearheaded by international organizations like the European Union, at uranium tailings sites in Min-Kush, Mailuu-Suu, and Shekaftar. Russia also stepped in to help with these efforts, including remediation projects at Min-Kush and Kaji-Say.
I do not think that the issue of Soviet-era uranium tailings can be directly linked to the construction of nuclear power plants in Central Asia, but it can stop future uranium ore production. Last year Kyrgyzstan banned uranium mining and exploration after months of the population’s protests against the prospect of renewed uranium mining. The problem of Soviet-era uranium mining and its legacy manifested in uranium tailings has become a contentious issue, influencing Kyrgyzstan’s decision to ban uranium mining for another 50 years, until 2070.
Uzbekistan has considerable uranium reserves and is currently producing it together with foreign investors, including China and Japan. I want to believe that nowadays uranium mining in Central Asia is carried out using new technologies and in accordance with international standards and should not lead to the formation of new “orphan” uranium tailings.
Main photo: Cover photo from a Facebook page of UzAtom