Features | Politics | Central Asia

Nuclear Energy in Kazakhstan? The Problem of Accountability

In Kazakhstan, the topic of nuclear energy comes wrapped in the legacy of the Semipalatinsk, the Soviet nuclear testing site.

Nuclear Energy in Kazakhstan? The Problem of Accountability
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The summer of 2021 was one of the hottest on record, seeing an increase of average temperatures worldwide. This has contributed to the urgency of ongoing conversations about climate change, which is behind the increase in temperatures, and the actions needed to tackle it. One of the key issues is energy decarbonization and how to achieve it. Nuclear energy is one of the more controversial avenues for a transition to decarbonized energy, with inconsistent public support and debates about whether its classification as a sustainable energy source is justified.

Kazakhstan was not spared the hot summer, with high temperatures causing drought and massive livestock losses in Western Kazakhstan, which has led to discussions about the desertification of Central Asia. Climate change mitigation and adaptation were one of the core topics Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev included in his early September State of the Nation Address. Tokayev has set a goal of Kazakhstan reaching net-zero emissions by 2060, suggesting replacing coal and gas as the main sources of energy in the country with nuclear and hydroelectric energy. Tokayev announced the commencement of research on developing nuclear energy, but did not clarify actions regarding hydroelectric energy. This represented a shift from a May 2021 speech, in which Tokayev discussed the possibilities for renewable energy avenues that were absent from his September address, and comments made in July 2019 regarding a referendum on nuclear energy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier offered his support for a nuclear plant in Kazakhstan. According to Kazakhstani energy expert Asset Nauryzbayev, the project under consideration involves purchasing equipment from Russia. The new power plant is planned to be located at Lake Balkhash, which has a fragile ecosystem, but is close to a highway located between Nur-Sultan and Almaty. 

The proposal to decarbonize the Kazakh economy was received abroad with cautious optimism, as otherwise Kazakhstan is unlikely to meet its Paris Agreement commitments due to its carbon-intensive energy industry, with high rates (up to 15 percent) of “fugitive emissions,” or leaks of oil and gas during the extraction process. 

Domestically, the proposition was met with resistance from environmental activists and the expert community and received with disdain on social media. For example, a recent roundtable of experts moderated by Kazakhstani journalist Vadim Boreiko countered statements made by government-adjacent experts. This resistance can be attributed to the complicated nuclear Soviet legacy in Kazakhstan, concerns about the economic and environmental desirability of the nuclear energy industry, and intensified ties with Russia that come with the proposed nuclear projects. 

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In Kazakhstan, the topic of nuclear energy comes wrapped in the legacy of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, where the Soviet Union conducted nuclear testing with lethal and long-lasting health consequences for locals. The Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear social movement in the 1990s made public the enormous costs for Kazakhs of hosting the Soviet Union’s nuclear and chemical weapons facilities,. This legacy still shapes public perception of all nuclear issues. 

At first, this legacy was taken seriously by Tokayev, as he proposed conducting a referendum on nuclear energy, but later he brushed off these concerns as an irrational “radiophobia” that Kazakhstan can easily get rid of. The Soviet legacy also feeds into growing suspicions about Kazakhstan once again becoming more dependent on Russia via the proposed nuclear projects. The nuclear power plant that is being discussed today will depend on Russia for funding, equipment and training. 

Moreover, Kazakh experts raise similar concerns as their Western counterparts, asking whether nuclear power would be the best solution for Kazakhstan, given the full carbon life cycle of a nuclear power plant. Another concern is the framing of nuclear and hydroelectric as the only two alternatives to fossil fuels. Hydroelectric energy is very costly in Kazakhstan, which has a scarcity of general water resources. Meanwhile, less contentious renewable energy sources were not mentioned in Tokayev’s address as viable alternatives, thus creating a false dichotomy: It’s either nuclear and hydroelectric or coal.

Additional key problems that make ensuring the safety of nuclear energy difficult in Kazakhstan are accountability and transparency, problems that are quite common in Kazakhstan. 

Following the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan , nuclear risk management received a push for accountability from stakeholders in civil society. For example, an assortment of different political groups in the European Parliament called for “a watch on nuclear transparency” and launched the Nuclear Transparency Group. The call for involvement of a wider group of actors was frequently justified by the strong bias in favor of nuclear safety that the nuclear energy industry actors possessed. Involving stakeholders from non-nuclear energy sectors, less affected by the safety bias, thus improves accountability and allows for the prevention of some errors.

Another topic that became widely discussed after the Fukushima disaster was corruption in the nuclear industry, so a stronger accountability system became even more necessary. Thus, public participation is crucial for ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants. In China, for example, there are attempts to bring the public into the discussion, which is difficult to do with a weak civil society — consequently this weakens accountability. It is even more important for nuclear waste management, as that also has long-lasting consequences for the environment of the stakeholders involved. 

While International Atomic Energy Agency regulations are to account for the technological safety of the nuclear plant by, for instance, carrying out the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review, the governance aspect is left largely unaccounted for without a strong civil society. So, within the context of the general lack of transparency and accountability in Kazakhstan and recent precedents of environmental oversight, the safety of the nuclear plant raises questions. 

Kazakhstan struggles with transparency, which affects the way it deals with environmental crises. This lack of accountability and the problems it causes have not gone unnoticed and a new environmental code was passed recently. The code elaborates on citizen participation in environmental decision-making, with Article 26 making it necessary for state representatives to assist civil society representatives in defending their environmental rights. However, such participation is severely limited by laws that only allow for political protests that are previously agreed upon by the local government. 

This tensions has been on display in recent conflicts such as that surrounding the destruction of the Malyi Taldykol lake in Nur-Sultan. Akimat representatives arrived to the protest — activists flamingo birdwatching at the lake — to warn them about the lack of permission for a political protest. The case of Malyi Taldykol also shows the limitations of other participation mechanisms included in the new environmental code, as the working group meetings with independent experts that are included in the code can be conducted irregularly and then stopped abruptly, while not providing the required documentation or scientific basis for their actions and making false promises. Nevertheless, earlier activists were able to defend the Kok-Zhailau national park, but mechanisms to reliably protest are still lacking. Kazakhstani civil society is slowly and steadily emerging, but it also experiences direct pressure and strain from the national government. 

These problems with both the legislation and the practice of environmental affairs in Kazakhstan may impede the implementation of an accountability system for any future nuclear power plant. The systematic repression of civil society impedes the meaningful participation of citizens, and the participation that is still possible is curtailed by legal restrictions. Much of this is not taken into consideration by Tokayev’s “listening state.” 

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The shift away from Tokayev’s earlier suggestion of a referendum on nuclear power highlights the lack of avenues for public input in the decision-making process regarding a potential nuclear power plant. Within the context of the larger problems of corruption and a lack of transparency in the Kazakh government, accountability similar to that which exists within the EU regarding nuclear safety is not possible.