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french connection: macron’s nuclear deals in central asia

French Connection: Macron’s Nuclear Deals in Central Asia

Author: Toghrul Ali

Nov 17, 2023

Image source: Astana Times Twitter

France has shifted its gaze to Central Asia in pursuit of uranium. With its markets in Africa disrupted, Paris is now seeking new sources for its yellowcake supplies. While Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan account for more than 40 percent of the world’s uranium production, it’s a logical option, but several challenges remain to bring Central Asian uranium to European markets. Due to France’s reliance on Russia as its main supplier of enriched uranium imports, Paris has been instead looking for alternative routes and sources for its nuclear energy needs. In this line, the Trans-Caspian route (also known as the Middle Corridor) has the potential to become a viable route for uranium transport.

November 1-2, French President Emmanuel Macron embarked on a working visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Macron became the first French president to visit Central Asia since Francois Mitterand in 1994, signifying the growing strategic importance of the region on the global stage. To minimize its losses in uranium imports from Africa and diversify away from Russian energy supplies, France laid the foundation for future cooperation in strategic minerals with its long-standing uranium suppliers, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In this line, on November 12, the joint venture between France’s Orano Mining and Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom announced they will commence mining at Kazakhstan’s South Tortkuduk site at the end of 2023. This falls in line with their amended subsoil utilization contract, signed in August 2022, which ensures joint uranium extraction for 15 years. 

The visit comes at a time when Central Asia is experiencing a significant distancing in its interactions with Russia, which had exerted influence over the region for more than a century. During the press conference following his meeting with Kazakh President Tokayev, Macron recognized the “geopolitical pressures” being placed on Kazakhstan in light of the war in Ukraine, and he welcomed Kazakhstan's "refusal ... to take the route of becoming a vassal." Indeed, Kazakhstan, known for pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy, has found itself in a challenging position with the ongoing war: facing increasing pressure from the West to abide by sanctions on Russia, while trying to maintain cordial relations with its trading partner and northern neighbor. In response to Macron’s comments, Tokayev said that France is one of Kazakhstan’s “key and reliable partners in the European Union (EU),” and expressed his desire to boost their partnership in the fields of nuclear energy, mining, construction, aerospace, and pharmaceuticals. Currently, more than 170 French companies operate in Kazakhstan, including energy giants Total and EDF. EDF has also been shortlisted as one of the four nuclear reactor vendors to deliver Kazakhstan’s first nuclear power plant.

France relies on nuclear energy to generate more than 60 percent of its electricity. After a military junta overthrew the government in Niger in July, France lost 20 percent of raw uranium imports. As a result of the junta, French troops were withdrawn in September, ringing alarm bells in Paris to seek out alternative partners. Niger, in addition to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has been among France’s top three providers of natural uranium in the last ten years. 

It seems apparent that one of the most important reasons behind Macron’s visit to both Central Asian countries was France’s interest in diversifying its uranium suppliers. During the visit, France and Kazakhstan announced signing a joint declaration on their intention to cooperate on strategic minerals, with state-owned companies Framatome and Kazatamprom signing agreements in the development of nuclear fuel cycle projects. As Kazakhstan is seeking to develop its domestic nuclear energy industry, France is well-positioned to provide the necessary technical know-how in this field. In Uzbekistan, Macron and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev also agreed to develop a “strategic partnership.” Meetings were held with the French state-owned nuclear cycle company Orano on “initiatives to expand cooperation in the exploration and mining of uranium.” 

By seeking to build upon its existing partnerships in Central Asia, France aims to minimize its losses from the uranium markets in Africa and reduce its dependence on Russia for its enriched uranium exports. Uranium trade between France and Russia has continued despite the war in Ukraine. In 2022, France was the leading EU importer of “Russian nuclear industry products,” with €359 million worth of imports in 2022, an increase of more than 250 percent over 2021. While the EU has adopted retaliatory measures against Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine, nuclear energy remains one of the last sectors left untouched by European sanctions. Consequently, the import of Russian nuclear products by Europe continues unabated and contributes to Moscow's state budget funding. This situation adds complexity to endeavors aimed at limiting Russia's capacity for military activities.

The main transport route to France for natural uranium from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (which accounted for 40 percent of French uranium imports in 2022) has been via Russia where the yellowcake is further refined and enriched. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most uranium destined for European markets had moved through the St. Petersburg port in Russia. With the EU pushing to reduce its dependence on Russian energy imports, Orano decided to invest €1.7 billion to increase its domestic uranium enrichment capacity and reduce reliance on Russian transit. Although most of Kazatomprom’s products have continued to move through the St. Petersburg port with no restrictions, early in 2022, Cameco, a Canadian uranium company, announced it would halt deliveries of Kazakh uranium until an alternative route is established. So long as Europe and the West maintain sanctions, France’s attempts to diversify its supply routes remain crucial, as the country attempts to minimize vulnerabilities that could potentially be utilized as a political weapon by Russia.

Transport routes for uranium from Central Asia are limited. With Iran and Russia being sanctions restricted, this leaves the Middle Corridor as the most direct alternative to Europe. The Middle Corridor is a multimodal land and sea transport corridor, helping products move from as far as China to Europe through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Türkiye, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea. 

However, even with the growing interest in the development of this route, several challenges remain for France in importing Kazakh and Uzbek yellowcake. While Kazakhstan has sporadically utilized the route for transporting its uranium, logistical restraints remain for the efficient transportation of goods via the Middle Corridor. For the route to become a consistent and viable alternative for uranium transit, further developments are necessary to prevent bottlenecks. Improvements in customs procedures, cargo capacity, security, and streamlining are needed to optimize the effectiveness of the Middle Corridor. Moreover, any future shipments of yellowcake via the route require the approval of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which regulates the framework for uranium transportation globally.

Furthermore, Russian partial ownership of some uranium mines in Kazakhstan should be a critical concern for France. In Kazakhstan, Rosatom, the state-owned Russian nuclear energy company, holds a prominent position as the leading foreign participant in uranium production, being involved in 5 out of the 14 uranium mines. In Uzbekistan, per an agreement signed in 2018, Russia has been pushing for the construction of two nuclear reactors. As both Central Asian states seek to develop their domestic nuclear power industries with hopes of obtaining alternative energy sources, this also poses a potential vulnerability for them vis-à-vis increased Russian influence in the region. With Kazakhstan’s nonproliferation obligations, it is unable to enrich its uranium within its borders. However, through a joint venture between Kazatomprom and Rosatom’s subsidiary, TVEL, at the Urals Electrochemical Combine at Novouralsk, Kazakhstan gained access to Russia’s uranium enrichment facilities.  

France’s interest in selling its nuclear technology to Central Asia can prove to be a beneficial tradeoff, allowing Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to reduce their dependence on Russia’s Rosatom. However, even if France sources uranium from Central Asia and not Russia, the concerning factor lies in Russia's continued influence over the transportation routes, posing a significant issue for energy security.

Lastly, the apparent tension in France-Azerbaijan relations, linked to France's support for Armenia in the Karabakh issue, poses a notable roadblock. For the goods to be transported from Central Asia to Europe, there are two main entry points in the Caspian Sea - Aktau and Turkmenbashi, with the only exit point being Baku. With France’s demands to adopt a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s territorial reconsolidation, it would seem prudent for Paris to improve ties with Baku to utilize the Middle Corridor for its uranium imports successfully. 

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