The authorities in Kazakhstan have for many years been toying with the idea of building a nuclear power plant, but they have lacked the nerve to take a decision in the face of strong public opposition.
In September, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev opted to punt his way out of the predicament by announcing a referendum on the question.
While Tokayev is evidently in favour of nuclear power, he is eager not to be seen as acting in defiance of broader sentiment.
“On one hand, Kazakhstan, as the largest uranium producer in the world, should have its own nuclear power generation [capability],” he said during that announcement. “On the other hand, many citizens and a number of experts have concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants.”
He adopted sharper language earlier in the year, at a government meeting in February. Without nuclear power, Kazakhstan stood to “lose its entire economy,” he said, adding for safe measure that nuclear sceptics were “populists who do not understand economic realities.”
Few would dispute the assertion that the country’s electricity infrastructure has seen better days. Power plants, largely relics of the Soviet era, are operating, by the estimates of industry insiders, at about one-third of their original capacity.
This state of affairs accounts for incidents like the one that last year afflicted the city of Ekibastuz, in the northern Pavlodar region. For days on end in November, just as temperatures had plunged to -30 degrees Celsius, a malfunction at the power station left thousands of residents without electricity or heating.
As demand grows, the problem can only worsen.
Timur Zhantikin, general director of Kazakhstan Nuclear Power Plants, a company created by the government to operate any putative plant, told Eurasianet that the capacity shortfall could reach 3 gigawatts by 2030.
Another plank of the pro-nuclear argument is environmental.
Up to 80% of electricity currently generated in Kazakhstan comes from burning coal. About 15% is hydropower and most of the rest is produced with natural gas and oil.
As the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has committed to reduce its carbon emissions under the Paris Agreement. But the share of renewables in the overall energy balance is only 4.5% and expansion plans are far from impressive.
Nuclear will kill two birds with one stone, say officials.
“Energy consumption in the country is growing: we must diversify production and ensure stable generation of clean energy,” Zhantikin said.
Should the nuclear power plant get the green light, a site has already identified. The village of Ulken, near Lake Balkhash in Almaty region, has good access to water sources and is well-connected to the road network.
As things stand, the government has the wind at its back.
In September-October, polling organisation Demoscope carried out a survey together with public policy research group Paperlab to query attitudes on the nuclear power plant among 1,100 respondents. Fully 46.6% of respondents were supportive of building a nuclear power plant, while 37.7% were opposed.
Those numbers are promising for the authorities, but it is also true that many simply have yet to familiarise themselves with the details of the issue. The Demoscope/Paperlab survey found that 36.8% of respondents were unaware of the government's plans for the power station, while 29.1% were aware but confessed to knowing about few particulars. A relatively modest 34.1% described themselves as “well-informed” on the topic.
Opponents cited the danger of accidents and radiation leaks, the potential impact of the plant’s construction on Lake Balkhash, corruption, the prospect of escalating project costs and the lack of specialised technicians as their primary concerns.
History makes the nuclear issue particularly emotive in Kazakhstan.
For four decades, the Soviet Union used the remote expanses of the northern Kazakh SSR as a testing site for its nuclear bombs. The consequences are detailed in stark terms by Togzhan Kassenova in her 2022 book Atomic Steppe.
“Following a nuclear explosion, radioactive particles mix with dust in the air and spread into the atmosphere. In unfavourable weather, this radioactive dust sweeps up into the clouds and rain, travelling far beyond the test site. The radioactive fallout from the Polygon contaminated not only grazing lands but also water wells, soil, and vegetation. Animals fed on contaminated pastures, and people who lived in the vicinity of the Polygon drank polluted water and milk and ate meat laced with radioisotopes,” Kassenova wrote.
More recently, incidents like the colossal explosion of an arms depot in the southern town of Arys in 2019 have fuelled perceptions that safety standards are often flouted by the same people who are supposed to uphold them.
Madina Kuketayeva, coordinator of Anti-NPP, a public association created to resist the plant’s construction, cites corruption as the reason officials would be unable to categorically assure high safety levels.
“But even accident-free operation of the nuclear power plant would cause irreparable damage to the ecology of Lake Balkhash, lead to its drying out, and also harm the health of local residents,” Kuketayeva told Eurasianet.
Geopolitics is a factor too.
Kazakh opponents of the plant and Russia’s war in Ukraine look with alarm at what has happened at the Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is controlled by invading Russian forces. In July, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressed its profound concern over how Russian forces had installed anti-personnel mines around the plant just as Ukrainian troops were embarking on a counteroffensive to recapture lost territory.
Anxieties are strong among some in Kazakhstan that Russia could one day direct its aggression at their country. In that instance, nuclear power could become a liability, pessimists warn.
“The terrorist attacks that occurred at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the military conflict with Russia deny us the moral right to allow for a similar scenario to be repeated in our country,” Kuketayeva said.
Some objections to the nuclear power plant are more narrowly technical. Aset Nauryzbayev, an economist who formerly ran state power grid operator KEGOC, says he believes that Kazakhstan is able to build the needed number of renewable energy generators by 2030. Nuclear power is outdated and overly expensive, he argued.
“The maintenance of a nuclear power plant, if it is built, will cost $1.5 billion a year, and we ordinary citizens will pay this unreasonably high price to the future owners of the nuclear power plant,” Nauryzbayev told Eurasianet.
The construction of the nuclear power plant itself will also require huge investments – anywhere up to $12bn by some reckoning. The source of that funding has not yet been publicly discussed.
“The government obviously hopes to involve Russia, which will provide a loan for its implementation, but sanctions may limit their financial capabilities,” Nauryzbayev said. “That would be good news.”
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.
This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.