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Euroviews. This is why Kazakhstan's nuclear energy ambitions should matter to the West

The Baiterek Tower monument in Astana, January 2021
The Baiterek Tower monument in Astana, January 2021 Copyright Unsplash/Euronews
Copyright Unsplash/Euronews
By Emil Avdaliani, Professor, European University in Tbilisi
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Currently, Kazakhstan is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, making its energy sector vulnerable to market fluctuations and geopolitical shifts, Emil Avdaliani writes.

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Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev recently announced that the country will hold a referendum to decide whether to build its first nuclear power plant. 

As discussions about sustainable energy solutions gain momentum globally, Kazakhstan's deliberations on nuclear energy could not come at a more pivotal time. 

The proposed project is nestled at the intersection of a host of considerations that resonate far beyond this Central Asian nation's borders. 

From energy security and economic growth to environmental stewardship and geopolitical sway, the implications are expansive.

Addressing domestic shortage and reshaping energy portfolio

Kazakhstan's desire to move toward nuclear energy is primarily driven by its need for energy security. 

As the world's top uranium producer, the country is sitting on an energy goldmine. The development of a nuclear power plant would not merely represent an economic venture but could serve as an insurance policy against future energy uncertainties. 

In particular, Kazakhstan faces a projected electricity shortage in the southern part of the country, and a nuclear facility could contribute 2,800 MW to its grid. 

Currently, Kazakhstan is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, making its energy sector vulnerable to market fluctuations and geopolitical shifts.
HANDOUT/AFP or licensors
Kazakh honour guards carrying the national constitution prior to the inauguration of the president-elect Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during a ceremony in Astana, November 2022HANDOUT/AFP or licensors

This is not just about meeting domestic energy demands; it's about reshaping the country's entire energy portfolio.

Currently, Kazakhstan is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, making its energy sector vulnerable to market fluctuations and geopolitical shifts. 

By adding nuclear power to the mix, the country would not just be diversifying its energy sources, it would be fortifying its national sovereignty and position on the global stage.

Carbon-neutral ambitions

The economic advantages of a nuclear plant are another compelling part of the story.

Beyond the obvious benefits of job creation in a specialized sector — Kazakhstan already employs nearly 18,000 people in the peaceful use of nuclear energy — the plant would produce a high energy output with relatively low input.

Furthermore, in a world increasingly worried about climate change, Kazakhstan has already signalled the importance of shifting towards a greener economy. 

The project would not only be a significant leap toward meeting Kazakhstan's ambitious goal to become a carbon-neutral country by 2060 but also be a concrete contribution to global sustainability goals.
Pavel Golovkin/AP
People take an open shower near a river in town of Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, July 2015Pavel Golovkin/AP

Tokayev emphasised this need in his recent address. Nuclear energy, with its minimal greenhouse gas emissions, aligns perfectly with this vision. 

The project would not only be a significant leap toward meeting Kazakhstan's ambitious goal to become a carbon-neutral country by 2060 but also be a concrete contribution to global sustainability goals.

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But the reverberations do not stop at economic or environmental factors; they spill over into the arena of geopolitics as well. 

A successful nuclear program affects geopolitics, too

A successful nuclear program has the potential to help Kazakhstan evolve from a consumer to a Eurasian energy supplier, amplifying its geopolitical influence. 

This is particularly relevant in view of Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the European Union’s aim to reduce the bloc’s reliance on Russian energy sources. 

Therefore, the issue of Kazakhstan’s nuclear energy is more than a question of energy exports, but rather a matter of regional stability and strategic partnerships.

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Europe and the US could view Kazakhstan's deliberations on nuclear energy as an alignment with broader goals of energy security, climate change mitigation, and regional stability.
AP/Kazakhstan's President Press Office
Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, right, and European Council President Charles Michel pose for a photo prior to their talks in Astana, October 2022AP/Kazakhstan's President Press Office

In that sense, Europe and the US could view Kazakhstan's deliberations on nuclear energy as an alignment with broader goals of energy security, climate change mitigation, and regional stability. 

With the EU recognising nuclear energy as a pivotal industry to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, Kazakhstan's endeavours could find supportive partners in the West. 

Partnerships could be particularly beneficial for companies specialising in nuclear technology, security protocols, and related services, tightening economic ties between Kazakhstan and Western countries.

However, not all countries in the EU support nuclear energy. For instance, while France backs it completely, Germany remains opposed.

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A history of being someone else's nuclear test site

Naturally, questions arise about whether Kazakhstan can ensure safety and security if its population votes in favour of building a nuclear power plant. 

This concern holds particular significance for ordinary Kazakhs, given that the country's land was used for nuclear weapons testing during the Soviet era. 

These tests caused health and environmental damage around the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, which closed in 1991 when the country gained independence. 

Understandably, some segments of Kazakhstan's population remain worried about the idea of developing nuclear facilities.
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP
Buildings and rubble seen in the nuclear test site town of Shagan, 800 km from Astana, August 2011VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP

Understandably, some segments of Kazakhstan's population remain worried about the idea of developing nuclear facilities. 

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However, Kazakhstan has demonstrated it could provide safety. The country is already hosting the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Low-Enriched Uranium Bank, indicating an existing reservoir of international trust. 

The nation is pushing this even further by seeking a seat on the IAEA board, a move that will deepen its involvement in shaping and adhering to global nuclear safety protocols.

A referendum to let people decide?

Kazakhstan's decision to hold a national referendum on the nuclear power plant issue adds an intriguing layer, especially since referendums are relatively rare in Central Asia — although Kazakhstan did hold one last year on constitutional amendments following mass unrest in January. 

Tokayev was re-elected last year and will be in power for seven years until 2029, which suggests that the country's policy on nuclear energy is likely to remain consistent for the foreseeable future.

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In the long run, the act of holding a referendum could also set a regional precedent when it comes to major decisions of national significance.
Olivier Douliery/AP
Kazakhstan's honor guards wait for Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to welcome US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Astana, February 2023Olivier Douliery/AP

The government's rationale is that the vote will enable citizens to express their views on nuclear energy, thereby bolstering transparency. 

The perspective is that projects that enjoy public backing are usually more successful in their implementation, lending social and political capital to the initiative.

In the long run, the act of holding a referendum could also set a regional precedent when it comes to major decisions of national significance.

Kazakhstan will be hoping that this not only elevates the country's regional standing but also facilitates partnerships with countries that prioritize similar governance models.

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Altering power dynamics could make Astana a more significant global player

In the end, the debate and the impending referendum on constructing a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan are not merely local or national issues. 

They are global talking points embedded in a complex tapestry of economic, environmental, technological, and geopolitical considerations. 

As Kazakhstan contemplates its energy future, the world would do well to pay attention. It is not just Kazakhstan's energy landscape that is at stake — it is a piece of the global sustainability puzzle. 

A successful nuclear program would certainly enhance Kazakhstan's geopolitical standing. By becoming a regional or potentially even global energy supplier, Kazakhstan could wield more influence across Central Asia and beyond. 

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This could alter power dynamics, particularly with neighbouring Russia and China, and could make Kazakhstan a more significant player in energy geopolitics.

Emil Avdaliani is a Professor at the European University in Tbilisi and Director of the Geocase think tank.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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