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Kazakhstan debates new nuclear power plant
After Fukushima disaster, some focus on safety issues, but others consider energy needs
By Yaroslava Naumenko
ASTANA – After the tragedy at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, analysts are debating the safety of Kazakhstan’s planned nuclear power station in Aktau, Mangistau Oblast.
“The Aktau nuclear power plant will be the world’s safest,” Sergey Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s RosAtom state nuclear power concern, said during a visit to Kazakhstan March 30 to sign a comprehensive co-operation pact between Kazakhstan and Russia on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
A joint Kazakh-Russian venture has been set up to carry out the feasibility study and build the unit and the entire power plant, equipped with a 300MW water-cooled nuclear reactor (VBER Ts 300).
“The comprehensive co-operation programme provides for a feasibility study and the drafting of a project to build a nuclear power plant on Kazakh soil – but only after that is proven economically expedient,” Kiriyenko said later, stressing that Kazakhstan will have the final say.
Target date of 2016
If the two countries achieve full consensus, the first of the two power units will be launched in 2016, according to earlier reports from the management of Kazakhstan’s national nuclear power company, KazAtomProm.
“Nuclear power engineering must keep developing, and the Fukushima tragedy should be a lesson to the entire industry – a lesson, not a brake,” Prime Minister Karim Masimov wrote on his web blog addressing safety concerns voiced by environmentalists and nuclear power industry specialists.
Timur Zhantikin, chairman of the Nuclear Energy Committee at the Ministry of Industry and New Technologies, questioned the decision to build the power plant in Aktau, the country’s only Caspian seaport.
“(However), the place is fit to hold a nuclear facility, since a nuclear-powered desalinating plant already operated there (1972-99, supplying 120,000 cu. m. of fresh water to the city of Aktau per day) before its reactor was stopped,” he added.
In 1999, fixing the reactor required a US $5m investment, Zhantikin said, explaining that “Kazakhstan couldn’t afford it in the 1990s, but the infrastructure, personnel and experience of operating a nuclear power plant are still in place at Aktau.”
Today, specialists are preparing a feasibility study and assessing the project’s economic expediency, Zhantikin said. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the project will also be assessed in terms of safety.
The reactor will be built using the safest technology, spokeswoman Olga Terekhina of Russia’s Afrikantov Design Office, which is working on the VBER Ts 300 reactor for Kazakhstan, assured.
“Units with this type of reactor are installed on Russian icebreakers,” she said. “They have a combined record of operation of 6,500 reactor-years without a single disruption.”
The most up-to-date reactors are made in Japan because Japan continued building nuclear reactors after the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, while many other countries froze relevant research and development altogether, National Nuclear Centre Director Kairat Kadyrzhanov contended.
“We need to choose among the most sophisticated power plant types in operation today, since we know what to expect of them,” he said.
Kadyrzhanov praised the Japanese nuclear power industry for “more than excellent” performance over the years.
“Of that country’s 50-odd power plants, only Fukushima 1 came to face problems after the devastating earthquake,” he said. “That station was built in 1971, at the same time as the Chernobyl power plant. Moreover, in 2011, … it was slated to go out of operation.”
Overly dependent on coal
About 82% of Kazakhstan’s power comes from coal, even though the country boasts copious uranium reserves, an anonymous official at Samruk Kazyna Co.’s energy asset management department noted.
“Kazakhstan’s entire energy system is 80-90% outdated,” the official said. “Unless we give a boost to nuclear power generation, we will keep lagging behind. … We needn’t hesitate developing the nuclear power sector – that power plant survived a magnitude-9 earthquake.”
The widely publicised plans for building a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan may still be cancelled in the wake of the March 11 Fukushima tragedy, a source at KazAtomProm, speaking on terms of anonymity, said.
“President (Nursultan) Nazarbayev attended a conference on Chernobyl in Kiev last month,” he said. “That conference may change the decision on building a nuclear power plant drastically. Anyway, safety will be the foremost concern in this kind of plans.”
The idea of building a nuclear power plant at Aktau has the support of only 34% of the population, versus 62% who are against it and 3.8% who remain indifferent, according to a survey by the Eko Mangistau organisation.