CPC - Caspian Policy Center

Research

central asia's nuclear ambitions and a sustainable energy future

Central Asia's Nuclear Ambitions and a Sustainable Energy Future

Author: Samantha Fanger

06/21/2024

Image source: Shutterstock

"Alongside renewables, energy efficiency, and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security,” according to Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA). The Central Asian region appears to be acknowledging this perspective and is taking significant steps to integrate nuclear energy into its sustainable energy goals. The challenge now lies in securing the necessary funding and support from international partners. 

On May 27, Moscow and Tashkent signed an agreement to build Central Asia’s first nuclear power plant, with the potential to begin construction as soon as this summer. Should the deal be carried forward, Russia's state nuclear company, Rosatom, willconstruct up to six nuclear reactors in Uzbekistan, each with a capacity of 55 megawatts. Notably, this project is considerably smaller than the 2.4-gigawatt project agreed upon in 2018

Kazakhstan is also making strides in the nuclear energy sector. This month, the Energy Ministry of Kazakhstan proposed a new legislative push to include nuclear power in its national energy plan, with aims to construct a nuclear power plant by 2035. The estimated cost for this project is in the range of $10-12 billion.  However, Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev announced in September 2023 that no decision would be made on nuclear energy without first consulting popular opinion through a national referendum this fall on the issue.  Kazakhstan has a difficult nuclear history and legacy due to Soviet-era nuclear weapons testing in Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk region, resulting in serious environmental and public health problems.

Uzbekistan is the world's fifth-largest uranium supplier, second only to Kazakhstan in the region, which is the largest uranium producer globally. None of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics currently has nuclear power plants. However, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have long argued that their growing economies and the warming regional climate necessitate the development of nuclear energy.

International investors have shown an interest in collaborating on nuclear energy in the past, but none has gone so far as to build nuclear reactors in the region. China has reportedly made some attempts to convince Kazakhstan to let Chinese-owned energy companies construct a nuclear powerplant. In April this year, the U.S. Department of State and Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Energy co-hosted a workshop on civil nuclear energy. The event gathered government officials to discuss capacity-building support and expert-level exchanges for small modular reactors (SMR) technologies. 

However, Russia has most persistently dangled nuclear energy investments before its Central Asian counterparts. Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy firm, Rosatom, would take the lead on this project. During President Putin’s visit to Tashkent, Rosatom Director General Alexey Likhachev  andUzAtom Director Azim Akhmedkhadzhaev signed a complimentary contract, agreeing to expand cooperation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has done little in recent years to persuade countries to cut ties with Rosatom. Though Russia's dominance in oil and gas exports to the West has diminishedsignificantly, it has maintained a hold on nuclear power. In 2022, Rosatom provided around 30% of the enriched uranium bought by European Union countries and 23% of the enriched uranium purchased by U.S. utility companies.

Owning more that 40% of the global nuclear fuel market, Russia controls about 46% of global enrichment capacity and enjoys a near exclusive hold on the production of nuclear fuel necessary for the next generation of nuclear reactors, which are vital to Western efforts in addressing climate change, and energy diversification. Russia has yet to use its uranium exports as a geopolitical tool, but it possesses the capability to do so at any time. This makes it especially critical for the United States and others to increase their own uranium enrichment capacities and partnerships. Just last month, the Biden Administration signed a bill banning imports on Russian enriched uranium in an effort both to stave off contributing to the Russian economy and to bolster U.S. energy resilience. 

Now would seem to be the opportune moment to forge strategic partnerships in the nuclear energy sector. Central Asianot only has abundant uranium supplies but also seems poised to develop new collaborators in this domain. Although Rosatom is unlikely to cease its efforts to negotiate nuclear agreements with neighboring countries, the region is actively diversifying its energy portfolio. Nuclear energy offers the West an opportunity to forge alliances with uranium-rich nations committed to a sustainable energy future that includes nuclear power, supporting the global green energy agenda, and mitigatingreliance on the Russian nuclear industry. 

 

 


Related Articles

Azerbaijan and Türkiye Solidify Key Energy Alliance with Turkmen Gas Deal

Azerbaijan and Türkiye struck a major energy deal in May, with state-owned giants BOTAŞ

COP29: the Caspian Region takes the Stage at the World’s Climate Summit