CPC - Caspian Policy Center


kazakhstan’s new nuclear problem: lake balkhash

Kazakhstan’s New Nuclear Problem: Lake Balkhash

Author: Haley Nelson

Feb 22, 2024

Image source: shutterstock

Another landlocked lake in Kazakhstan is under threat. While declining water levels in the Caspian Sea and the Aral Sea have begun threatening the livelihoods of Central Asians, 330 kilometers northwest of Almaty, the survival of another body of water is facing the same risk. On the western shore of Lake Balkhash, Kazakhstan plans to build its first nuclear power plant(NPP) since the 1990s in the semi-deserted town of Ulken. However, the citizens of Kazakhstan will have a say in this matter through a proposed referendum. This referendum would allow citizens to decide between prioritizing energy security or water security. For a country that suffers insecurity in both realms, no decision has had more consequences than this.

On January 3, 2024, following his first announcement in September 2023, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev reiterated his support for a national referendum on the proposed nuclear power plant in an interview with Egemen Qazaqstan newspaper. Although the referendum date has not been formally set, it would place the NPP in the lakeside city of Ulken, on the edge of one of the largest lakes in Asia, the third largest in Eurasia, and the 15th largest in the world; Lake Balkhash. This lake is the reservoir for Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest and most populated city and the economic capital of Central Asia. The construction of an NPP on one of Kazakhstan’s key sources of drinking water could potentially place a huge strain on an already-existing issue in the region.

Central Asia is facing an existential crisis as one in six Central Asians live in areas with high drought risk, and nearly one-third of the region’s population lacks access to safe drinking water. While addressing water insecurity should be a government priority, Kazakhstan must navigate solutions while contending with conflicting energy shortage issues.

Simultaneously, while Kazakhstan grapples with water insecurity, energy security has severely impacted the quality of life for its citizens. As blackouts continue to roll across the country’s energy grid each year, Kazakhstan has been caught between rising energy demand, an aging regional energy distribution system, and inflexible capacity that cannot handle the volatile nature of weather-dependent renewables. Kazakhstan cannot afford to entirely write off a new source of energy. 

In 2021, power outages struck western Kazakhstan, resulting in the loss of over 1,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity as three power plants in northeastern Kazakhstan were compromised during an emergency. Again, in January 2022, major cities in Kazakhstan suffered power outages due to emergency imbalances in the grid. These shortages and imbalances are anticipated to persist and worsen unless Kazakhstan upgrades its transmission grid and enhances capacity with diverse sources.

Despite the longstanding consideration of building a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan, the country’s tragic legacy of nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk has made the government very cautious of nuclear energy’s potential long-term health and environmental consequences. Over the past two decades, Kazakhstan has reintroduced, replanned, and relocated this potential NPP in response to geopolitical and social challenges. The project still has not passed feasibility tests as it has been complicated by competition between potential reactor suppliers (China, Russia, France, and South Korea) and concerns about environmental risks associated with the project’s location. In regard to the foreign supplier, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Energy, Almasadam Satkaliyev, stated, "Rosatom has a certain advantage, but this has not been decided on, it will not be just one supplier, but a combination of companies." 

Although President Tokayev has expressed great concern over the potential human impact and the “rapid shallowing of Lake Balkhash,” he also emphasizes that without nuclear power, Kazakhstan stands to “lose its entire economy.” 

Standing on the relics of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s electricity infrastructure is in dire need of an upgrade. The addition of nuclear energy to Kazakhstan’s mix wouldn’t only help to modernize infrastructure, but it would perfectly align with Kazakhstan’s vision to become carbon neutral by 2060. Plus, economically, domestically produced nuclear energy could transform Kazakhstan from a Eurasian energy importer to a Eurasian energy supplier. But, it comes with the drawback of intensifying the existing water shortage problem in the region.

West bank of Balkhash Lake. May 11, 2017. Source: Shutter Stock

Experts were warning of lake degradation 20 years ago when the construction of the NPP on the lakeshore was first discussed at the international environmental forum ‘Balkhash-2000.’  Today, even more so than before, as Central Asia’s climate becomes warmer and dryer each year, water withdrawal from Lake Balkhash for the NPP, coupled with the water imbalances resulting from the NPP's pollution, poses a significant risk to the survival of the lake's ecosystem. 

This isn’t the first time Lake Balkhash has come under threat. Although the lake has great economic value due to its local fisheries and bathing resorts, it’s victim to climate conditions in the headwaters that supply the lake, the Ili River. In the 1970s and 1980s, the closed-basin lake experienced an ecological crisis triggered by the filling of the Kapchagay Reservoir, formed by a dam on the Ili River. This led to a decline in water levels, increased water salinity, and a loss of biodiversity. The carp population shrank by an estimated 90% during the reservoir’s filling, and the local fishing industry suffered immensely as a result. Between 1972 and 2001, Lake Balkhash lost 150 square kilometers of water surface area. Although the water levels eventually recovered in 2005, the lake faces a new problem. The rising population of China and the economic development of Xinjiang have further placed pressure on Lake Balkhash. 

The Ili River, contributing 80% of Lake Balkhash’s water, is also the most fertile river in the Xinjiang region of China. Rice cultivation and development in Xinjiang's agricultural industry have diverted the headwaters that supply Lake Balkhash, and China does not plan to slow its water usage. Instead, China is extracting more water from the Ili than it ever has before and it “plans for more rice production” in Xinjiang. While China faces its own water insecurity problems, it also does not belong to any international transboundary water agreements. Although Astana has set up a 20-member working group to negotiate terms with Beijing, little progress has been made on China’s side and there is yet to be a deal on maintaining the cross-boundary flow with Kazakhstan on the Ili river. 

Lake Balkhash. Source: Shutterstock

Under existing conditions, in 2013, McKinsey, a consulting firm, estimated that “Lake Balkhash would have a water shortage of 1.9 billion cubic meters in 2030.” Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be unprecedented for the region as 11 of the 16 nearby lakes have already dried up. Lake Balkhash, with an average depth of 6 meters, is susceptible to further water level declines, posing a serious threat to the 3.3 million people in the Balkhash Basin, as well as over 60 plant species, 12 endangered birds, and six fish species exclusive to the region.

As the world’s largest uranium producer, Kazakhstan is sitting on top of resources that could guarantee long-term energy security. “On one hand, Kazakhstan, as the largest uranium producer in the world, should have its own nuclear power generation [capability]. On the other hand, many citizens and a number of experts have concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants,” Tokayev stated when announcing the NPP referendum in September 2023. 

The town of Ulken, which has been waiting for an energy generation facility since the 1980s, is now stuck in the middle of a nationwide debate. The 1,500 residents are divided over this decision.  Some residents are concerned about health hazards, some support the job opportunities that will come with the project, and local fishermen are concerned about the future of their industry if water levels continue to decline. Most people in Ulken depend on the lake for their livelihood, and the wastewater from the NPP could potentially kill the local fishing industry. However, it could also bring hundreds of jobs to the economically depressed region. 

Although some argue that Lake Balkhash is not guaranteed long-term survival under current conditions, the decision to construct an NPP on its shores could surely speed up its death. On the other hand, while Kazakhstan needs a quick fix to its energy inefficiencies, this NPP could provide the country with 12 percent of Kazakhstan’s electricity requirements by 2035, 2,800 MW of electricity. Regardless of the chosen path, the referendum will significantly shape Kazakhstan's trajectory. Citizens have been left to decide between energy security or the survival of one of Asia’s largest lakes. 

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