As the world looks to refine the outlook for nuclear power in the post-Fukushima environment, Kazakhstan’s vast uranium reserves mean it has a strategic game to play in the coming years. Kazakhstan has 15% of the world’s uranium resources and an expanding mining sector. The industry is planning for 25,000 tons of uranium (tU) in 2011, and 30,000 tU per year by 2018. In 2009 it became the world’s leading uranium producer, with almost 28% of world production. A single nuclear power reactor operated from 1972 to 1999, generating electricity and conducting desalination.Kazakhstan boasts a major plant making nuclear fuel pellets and aims eventually to sell value-added fuel rather than just uranium. It aims to supply 30% of the world fuel fabrication market by 2015.
While Japan’s nuclear near-disaster caused reservations over the safety of nuclear power, it is unlikely that the world’s demand for uranium will decrease. In addition to the 436 nuclear plants operating worldwide, there are plenty of voices backing the energy’s safety, sustaining the demand for uranium. By 2030, an extra 400 plants are expected to open. Furthermore, leading energy and mining firms from Russia, China, Japan, France, and Canada have invested billions in the sector in Kazakhstan.
The success of Kazakhstani state firm Kazatomprom further elevates the country’s position as a nuclear powerhouse involved in all aspects of uranium production. President Nazarbayev has clearly stated his intention that Kazakhstan will emerge as an international fuel bank for the enriched mineral. The fuel bank, monitored by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would provide fuel for atomic power plants in nations that pledged to shun development of enrichment programs that could produce nuclear weapons material. The massive warehouse slated to host the facility would store 60 metric tons of low-enriched uranium reactor fuel under the IAEA plan.
Even though Kazakhstan does not yet have a uranium enrichment capability, Kazatomprom is keen to expand. Company Vice-President Sergey Yashin has expressed desire for “something in return” from international companies mining in Kazakhstan, with regards to technological advancement. “The most important thing is enrichment as this significantly increases Kazatomprom’s status and profitability,” he told the Engineering & Mining Journal in 2010. Kazatomprom is currently working on the construction of a processing plant alongside Toshiba, as well as an enrichment plant alongside Russian company RusAtom in Russia. Yashin said he expects a Kazakhstani nuclear power plant to be finished by 2020. Canadian mining giant Cameco has agreed to establish a joint plant to prepare yellow cake for enrichment, while a French and Japanese conglomerate signed on to help build the facilities that turn enriched uranium into fuel rods. Kazatomprom has also landed deals to become China’s main supplier of nuclear fuel.
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