Crossroads Asia

Kazakhstan Banks on Nuclear Power

Nuclear non-proliferation has become Astana’s international calling card.

Catherine Putz
Kazakhstan Banks on Nuclear Power
Credit: Flickr/albertoog

Kazakhstan could begin accumulating low-enriched uranium (LEU) at a recently approved International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) bank as early as 2017. According to Tengrinews, Kazakhstan is working out the logistics of transporting nuclear material through Russia to the planned international LEU bank, which will be operated under the auspices of the IAEA.

A scheduled meeting with the IAEA Board of Governors in Vienna on June 8 “will consider two draft agreements. One with Kazakhstan on the institution of the bank, and the other one with the Government of the Russian Federation on transit through its territory,” said Timur Zhantikin, the deputy chairman of the Committee on Atomic and Energy Supervision of the Ministry of Energy of Kazakhstan.

The LEU bank has been in the works since 2010, when Kazakhstan put itself forward as a possible host.

At a non-proliferation conference in 2009, then-IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei endorsed the idea of an international bank for LEU from which non-nuclear states could obtain material for the operation of nuclear power plants without having to develop their own enrichment facilities, as well as establishing a reliable back-up supply for IAEA member states.

“Every country that would like to get the fuel, that would like to get the technology, the reactor, will get that, but not necessarily developing their own enrichment facility. And assurance of supply mechanism should be reliable, should be apolitical, should be based solely on non-proliferation criteria,” he said.

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Facilities that enriched uranium for fuel use “are a few months away from a nuclear weapon,” ElBaradei said at the time.

Kazakhstan put forth its candidacy to host the bank in 2010 and in April of this year an agreement was reached with IAEA. Russia hosts a similar reserve bank in Angarsk. In operation since 2010, the Russian LEU bank is entirely owned by Russia, but is operated under the IAEA. When the facility opened, the IAEA said it fulfills one of the group’s core aims: assuring supply for peaceful uses of nuclear power.

The bank being established in Kazakhstan, however, will be owned and operated by the IAEA itself. Kazakhstan will bear the daily costs of operating the facility–last said to be established at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) in eastern Kazakhstan–but the IAEA will be responsible for the purchase and delivery of the LEU, the purchase of equipment, and other technical resources required.

Donors making the project possible include the United States, the EU, Norway, Kuwait, the UAE, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Both the U.S. and Russia have committed to supplying the bank by downbending highly-enriched uranium (HEU), used in nuclear weapons, into LEU for power generation. Despite overall rising tensions between Russia and the West, cooperation is some areas has continued. For example, in January 2015 the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Safety Administration, announced the successful removed of about 80 pounds of HEU from the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Almaty to Russia where it will be downbended:

This complex operation was the culmination of a multi-year effort between the United States, Kazakhstan, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“The removal of this HEU is yet another example of how the international community continues to work together to prevent the threat of nuclear terrorism,” said DOE/NNSA Deputy Administrator Anne Harrington. “This cooperation reduces the chance that such material can fall into the hands of terrorists.”

Kazakhstan has become the poster-child for non-proliferation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was left with a sizable arsenal of nuclear weapons–the world’s fourth largest at the time–which it voluntarily gave up in the 1990s. Since then, Astana has made non-proliferation its calling card. The country is, however, uniquely placed to produce and store uranium. In 2013, Kazakhstan produced 41 percent of the global supply of mined uranium. Since 2009, it has been the world’s overall largest producer of uranium.

As June progresses, and negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 move toward a possible conclusion, we should expect Kazakhstan to continue to flaunt its status as a central node of nuclear power, sans nuclear weapons.