On October 19, 2018, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin officially launched the project to construct Uzbekistan’s first nuclear power plant (NPP). The ceremony marking the start of engineering surveying to select a site for the facility was held in Tashkent as part of Putin’s state visit to Uzbekistan. The NPP project involves the construction of two VVER-1200 power units that will meet modern international safety standards. The first power unit of this 2.4 gigawatt Generation III+ plant is scheduled to be commissioned by the end of 2028 [Rosatom, 2018a]. The future NPP will most likely be located in the Navoiy region, but the Jizzakh region is also discussed as a potential site. A final decision on the NPP location will be made based on seismological, geological, environmental and economic considerations. The actual construction is expected to start not earlier than in 2020 [IntelliNews, 2018]. On the sidelines of the event, the Russian Rosatom Corporation, the Uzbek Academy of Sciences and the Agency for the Development of Atomic Energy under the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan (Uzatom) signed a memorandum of cooperation in the field of personnel education and training for the country’s atomic energy industry. It is also noteworthy that Rosatom and Uzatom signed a separate memorandum on the formation of positive public opinion in Uzbekistan regarding nuclear power. Under this document, the parties plan to cooperate in raising public awareness about nuclear energy technologies, training national media representatives, and implementing relevant social and educational projects in Uzbekistan.
Russia and Uzbekistan have begun actively addressing the issue of the NPP construction since late 2017. On November 2, 2017, Rosatom and the Uzbek Academy of Sciences signed a memorandum of cooperation in the field of peaceful uses of atomic energy signifying their intention to intensify cooperation in practical applications of nuclear technologies, the development of nuclear infrastructure in Uzbekistan, staff training, as well as basic and applied research in nuclear physics [Rosatom, 2017a]. On December 29, 2017, the two countries signed an intergovernmental cooperation agreement on the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes, which, among other things, provided for the construction of NPPs and nuclear research reactors [Rosatom, 2017b]. In May 2018, Rosatom presented its advanced nuclear know-how, including the innovative NPP designs, at the 13th Power Uzbekistan 2018 international exhibition [Rosatom, 2018b]. In a move confirming Tashkent’s nuclear power ambitions, on July 19, 2018, President Mirziyoyev issued an edict establishing Uzatom [Tashkent Times, 2018]. Finally, on September 7, 2018, Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the NPP construction in Uzbekistan. The document was signed in Moscow following the 19th meeting of the Russia-Uzbekistan Intergovernmental Commission for Economic Cooperation [Rosatom, 2018c].
It is clear that the NPP construction is a complex, large-scale and expensive endeavor and will be a massive financial burden for Uzbekistan. The project will mainly be financed by a soft loan from the Russian government supplemented by the Uzbek government’s own funds, but the parties are still to finalize the overall cost of the plant. According to Russian officials, the estimated NPP cost will be about $11 billion, with Tashkent hoping to achieve a discount. Negotiations on an engineering, procurement and construction contract that will finalize the NPP price will start in January 2019. It is expected that up to 10,000 workers will be needed for the construction works, while the plant operation will require 1,500 personnel [IntelliNews, 2018; Reuters, 2018]. Currently, the demand for electricity in Uzbekistan equals 69 billion kW/h and is constantly growing, and almost 85% of this volume is generated by burning gas and coal at thermal power plants, while hydroelectric power plants produce the remaining 15%. The country spends annually 16.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas, 86 thousand tons of fuel oil and 2.3 million tons of coal to generate electric power [UzDaily, 2018]. Therefore, by constructing the NPP Uzbekistan intends to use its natural gas reserves more efficiently – to produce value added petrochemicals and increase gas exports to foreign markets, primarily, to China [Reuters, 2018].
The Uzbek NPP, when constructed, will be the first of its kind in Central Asia. During the Soviet times, Kazakhstan hosted the BN-350 fast reactor at Aktau (formerly Shevchenko) on the coast of the Caspian Sea. The reactor that was in operation since 1973 produced electricity and potable water until it was closed down in 1999. For a number of years, Kazakhstan has seriously been considering the construction of an NPP on its territory, but an earlier attempt, the 2006 joint venture with Russia for the development and export marketing of innovative small and medium-sized reactors, was not successful due to disagreements between the parties on intellectual property rights, funding arrangements, technical and pricing issues. There was also a proposal by the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan to construct small 50-100 MWe reactors to supply remote towns.
The plan for an NPP resurfaced in early 2013 when President Nazarbayev, speaking at the government meeting, stated that Kazakhstan was going to launch its first post-independence nuclear power project in the near future. In early 2014, he commissioned the government to decide on the NPP location, sources of investment and timing of construction. The government moved quickly to identify several sites, the most likely being the town of Kurchatov in eastern Kazakhstan and the area near the village of Ulken on the south-western shore of Lake Balkhash, and even signed a preliminary intergovernmental agreement with Russia regarding the NPP construction. Japan has also showed readiness to participate in Kazakhstan’s NPP project. The rationale behind the push for nuclear power was mainly based on the expected energy shortage resulting from the implementation of large-scale industrial and infrastructure projects in the country, as well as the population growth. In addition, it was expected that nuclear power would help in addressing issues of uneven distribution of energy, dependence on foreign supplies, rising electricity costs, and environmental pollution. However, despite all the declared plans, the project has never progressed beyond a feasibility study, let alone a firm decision on the exact location and a primary strategic partner. Moreover, in December 2015, Minister of Energy Vladimir Shkolnik stated that in terms of its national energy mix Kazakhstan had excess power capacity and would not push forward with the NPP construction [Tengrinews, 2015]. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan has not abandoned entirely its plans for the development of nuclear power, including jointly with Russia, and the authorized entities continue to work on relevant design specifications and estimates, as well as feasibility studies. A final decision on the NPP project will depend on Kazakhstan’s future economic situation and energy needs.
In any case, the Uzbekistan-Russia NPP construction project should not become an obstacle to the expansion of interaction in the nuclear field between Astana and Tashkent. The two countries could consider the possibility of joint exploration and development of uranium deposits and the establishment of facilities for processing natural uranium and producing higher value added nuclear fuel cycle products. Research institutions of the National Nuclear Center of Kazakhstan and the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan could cooperate directly in conducting theoretical and applied research in peaceful uses of atomic energy. One of the promising directions could be more active cooperation between the countries in the field of nuclear medicine. Another priority area could be a partnership between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the training and retraining of engineering, technical and scientific personnel for the civilian nuclear power industry facing the problem of aging staff. The parties could also share experience in ensuring cybersecurity at their nuclear enterprises, as well as in working with public opinion to form a favorable attitude towards initiatives in the nuclear field, including the NPP project. The experience of Kazakhstan in solving a complex set of problems associated with the elimination of nuclear-weapon testing effects, ensuring radiation safety and reducing health and environmental risks on the territory of the former Semipalatinsk test site could be of special interest to Uzbekistan.
Therefore, the development of the nuclear power sector in Uzbekistan initiated by President Mirziyoyev should not become a bone of contention or a cause for competition in Uzbek-Kazakh relations, but rather open a window of opportunity for furthering bilateral cooperation. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have a solid resource and technological potential in the nuclear power industry and could establish mutually beneficial partnership that would contribute to the sustainable scientific and technological development of the two countries and the diversification of their national economies, as well as assist in solving the problems of the Soviet nuclear legacy and other environmental problems of the Central Asian region.
IntelliNews. (2018). Putin, Mirziyoyev launch project for Uzbekistan’s first nuclear plant. Retrieved from http://www.intellinews.com/putin-mirziyoyev-launch-uzbek-project-for-central-asia-s-first-nuclear-plant-150602/. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Reuters. (2018). Russia and Uzbekistan launch work on nuclear power plant. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/uzbekistan-russia-putin-nuclear/update-3-russia-and-uzbekistan-launch-work-on-nuclear-power-plant-idUSL8N1WZ3LI. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Rosatom. (2017a). ROSATOM and the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan signed the Memorandum of Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. Retrieved from https://rosatom.ru/en/press-centre/news/rosatom-and-the-academy-of-sciences-of-uzbekistan-signed-the-memorandum-of-cooperation-in-the-field-/. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Rosatom. (2017b). Russia and Uzbekistan Sign Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. Retrieved from https://www.rosatom.ru/en/press-centre/news/russia-and-uzbekistan-sign-nuclear-cooperation-agreement/. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Rosatom. (2018a). President of Uzbekistan S. Mirziyoyev and President of Russia V. Putin launched the First NPP Construction Project in Uzbekistan. Retrieved from https://www.rosatom.ru/en/press-centre/news/president-of-uzbekistan-s-mirziyoyev-and-president-of-russia-v-putin-launched-the-first-npp-construc/. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Rosatom. (2018b). Russian nuclear technologies were for the first time presented at Power Uzbekistan 2018. Retrieved from http://www.rosatom.ru/journalist/news/rossiyskie-atomnye-tekhnologii-vpervye-predstavili-na-power-uzbekistan-2018/. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Rosatom. (2018c). Russia and Uzbekistan agreed to build a NPP in the republic. Retrieved from https://www.rosatom.ru/en/press-centre/news/russia-and-uzbekistan-agreed-to-build-a-npp-in-the-republic/. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Tashkent Times. (2018). Shavkat Mirziyoyev signs decree creating UzAtom. Retrieved from http://tashkenttimes.uz/national/2642-shavkat-mirziyoyev-signs-decree-creating-uzatom. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Tengrinews. (2015). The construction of a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan has been postponed indefinitely. Retrieved from https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/stroitelstvo-aes-kazahstane-otlojili-neopredelennyiy-srok-286302/. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
UzDaily. (2018). President of Uzbekistan approves agreement on construction of nuclear power plants with Russia. Retrieved from https://www.uzdaily.com/articles-id-46165.htm. Accessed on 22.10.2018.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dauren Aben holds a Master’s in International Relations from Kainar University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a Master’s in International Policy Studies and certificates in nonproliferation studies, conflict resolution, and commercial diplomacy from the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies. Dauren previously worked as a senior project manager and researcher at the Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education. In 2011-2014, he worked as a senior research fellow at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. In 2008-20