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Kazakhstan chooses Aktau as a nuclear power plant site
The first domestically built plant since Kazakhstan declared independence will provide needed power while utilising existing infrastructure coupled with new technology.
By Aleksandra Babkina
ALMATY – Mindful of environmental concerns and the vagaries of oil and gas, Kazakhstan is looking to develop civilian nuclear power.
Kazakhstan's first nuclear power plant since the country gained independence could rise near Aktau, Mangistau Oblast, Valery Shevelev, managing director in charge of innovative projects at Kazatomprom, the national nuclear holding company, said March 4.
"A political decision to build a [nuclear] power plant in Kazakhstan has been finalised," he said.
Officials chose the Mangistau plateau as a likely site because infrastructure and personnel from a defunct Soviet-era nuclear power plant (in operation from 1973-1999) exist there, he said.
Other likely locations for civilian nuclear plants include Balkhash and Kurchatov, Tengri News reported.
"The plant will be built according to a highly reliable reactor design that [we] will convert from military to peaceful use," Shevelev said.
Kazakhstan has a key advantage in embracing civilian nuclear energy – it is self-sufficient in uranium. The country has the world's second-largest uranium reserves – 21% of the international total – and it is the global leader in uranium production. This year, uranium production should reach 20,000 tonnes, Kazatomprom estimates.
Power plant vital to Mangistau's energy self-sufficiency
Dauren Aben, a senior researcher at the Kazakhstani Institute of Strategic Studies, discussed some of the factors behind choosing Aktau.
"Qualified personnel who used to operate the [shut-down] BN 350 reactor have remained [in Aktau]," Aben said. "The Mangistau Nuclear Energy Complex [which today actually contains three heat and electricity plants that burn natural gas] is also still standing and will be the site for the would-be power plant's infrastructure. Those factors should notably reduce project costs."
Construction of the new nuclear plant will take about 12 years, which will provide enough time to train skilled personnel, Aben added.
The nuclear plant is essential for Mangistau Oblast's future self-sufficiency in terms of energy, Serik Kozhakhmetov, general director of Kazatomprom's High Technology Institute, told Central Asia Online. It also accords with periodic Kazakhstani statements of intent to diversify away from oil and gas.
"The decision to build the power plant at Aktau was based on the balance of [energy] capacities in the country and of regional development prospects with regard for the need to replace decommissioned power facilities with new ones," he said.
Conventional plants planned, too
Today, the only sources of energy in Mangistau Oblast are the three natural gas-burning heat and power plants at the misnamed Mangistau Nuclear Energy Complex, Kozhakhmetov said. Two of those plants will stop operating by 2015-2016 because their technological life span will expire, and the third one will not have the capacity to supply the oblast by itself.
Meeting the oblast's projected energy needs until 2030 would require a new power plant of about 900MW capacity, with the first unit tentatively scheduled to go online in 2015, according to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.
"Unless we replace decommissioned facilities, then by 2016 we will face a power shortage that will negatively affect all aspects of life in Aktau and throughout the region," Talgat Mukanov, director of the New Technology and Energy Conservation Department at the Ministry of Industry and New Technologies, said.
"Alternative energy sources are still underdeveloped; there is no river in Mangistau Oblast to build a hydro-power plant on; and building a coal-burning heat and power station wouldn't be feasible because the oblast has no coal deposits of its own," he said, adding that a gas-fuelled power plant would be vulnerable to fluctuation in natural gas prices, the growth of which would push up electricity rates. Also, both coal- and gas-fuelled power plants would emit carbon dioxide.
By Kazatomprom estimates, if a nuclear power plant began operation in Aktau, yearly discharges of carbon dioxide into the air would decrease by 3m tonnes and those of nitric acid by 10,000 tonnes. It would also conserve 5m tonnes of oxygen that the existing heat and power stations consume yearly. That factor would be particularly beneficial to Mangistau Oblast, where woodlands are scarce.
Who will build the plant?
Kazakhstan will solicit international bids to build the nuclear plant, Shevelev said.
"All proposals will be duly reviewed, with hearings and international expert studies, and everything else that accompanies such a process," he said.
Most likely, the plant will be built on the basis of a 300MW reactor – the VBER 300, which has the world's highest ("3+") safety rating, according to Kazatomprom.