Russia is one of the leaders in the market of nuclear-related technologies and is renowned for quality and safety of its nuclear power plants, whose reasonable cost is especially attractive for moderate-sized developing nations. Many countries, facing issues linked to a lack of hydrocarbon resources or ecological problems but still wishing to develop their energy sector and manufacturing, have expressed their interest in cooperating with Russia in the nuclear energy sphere. At present, the State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM possesses the largest portfolio of foreign orders in the world. Its business activities cover Eastern Europe, Middle East, North Africa, as well as East, South and Southeast Asia, and soon another large region, Central Asia will join their ranks.
It is worth reminding our readers that there were nuclear power plants in Central Asia before. In 1973, the world’s first BN-350 fast neutron reactor became operational in Aktau, Kazakhstan, at the time when together with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan it was part of the USSR. However, in 1999 the reactor was decommissioned and since then no nuclear power has been generated in the Central Asian territories. Still, Kazakhstan has preserved all the necessary infrastructure that can be used to develop its nuclear energy capabilities. Hence, Kazakhstan may yet approach Russian experts for help in this area.
The two nations were engaged in a large-scale joint project on disposal of nuclear weapons from 1995 to 2017. In addition, Russia and Kazakhstan, the largest exporter of uranium, are actively collaborating on issues of mining, processing and transporting this strategically important raw material. Furthermore, Russian and Kazakh nuclear scientists, products of the same Soviet education system, are successfully cooperating with each other. In September 2017, the governments of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan have signed an agreement on cooperation in the scientific research and development areas of the atomic energy sector. If Kazakhstan decides to install nuclear power plants in the near future, it is highly likely that Russian specialists will be involved in their construction. Notably, ROSATOM’s regional center, ROSATOM Central Asia is located in the Kazakh capital Astana.
However, the first modern nuclear power plant in this region will probably be built in Uzbekistan, despite the fact that this Central Asian nation cedes first place to the neighboring Kazakhstan, it still possesses substantial uranium deposits and exports them. If nuclear power plants are installed in Uzbekistan, it will be able to fully supply itself with nuclear fuel without the need for foreign suppliers.
Uzbekistan started working on its nuclear programme in 2014 and from the very beginning viewed Russia as the most likely partner in its exploration of this “peaceful atom”. Other potential partners included Canada, France and PRC, but in the end Russia was selected.
In December 2017, the Head of the State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM, Alexey Likhachev and Uzbekistan’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nodir Otajonov, signed an intergovernmental agreement on utilizing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. This document envisages the construction of an industrial nuclear power plant by ROSATOM in Uzbekistan. According to the plan proposed by the Russian side, the plant could be equipped with two modern, 3+ generation WWER-1200 reactors (WWER = Water-Water Energetic Reactor). This latest Russian innovation has been used for industrial purposes since 2016, and it is a worthy “descendent” of the Soviet and Russian WWER reactors. It has valuable features such as high capacity, a 60-year service life, and most importantly a unique automated safety system capable of preventing nuclear disasters even at times of a natural cataclysm, which caused a catastrophe at the site of the Japanese nuclear power plant, Fukushima-1 in 2011.
According to the agreement, aside from the nuclear power plant, ROSATOM is to construct several reactors for research purposes. In addition, both sides have agreed to explore and develop new uranium mines, produce isotopes and use them for industrial purposes. Besides, Russian nuclear experts have taken on the responsibility of training staff for the Uzbek nuclear power sector.
In April 2018, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev stated that the agreement between his nation and Russia on construction of the first nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan might be signed at some point in 2018.
Hence it was no coincidence that ROSATOM made a comprehensive presentation of its latest technologies at the international exhibition Power Uzbekistan, held in Tashkent in May 2018. The ROSATOM group of companies includes various technology and research enterprises, thus not all of the innovations showcased at the exhibition were connected to atomic energy. Still the focus remained on the topic of installing and running a modern nuclear power plant as well as building the necessary infrastructure for it.
At the end of May 2018, Mirziyoyev met with Likhachev to discuss the various aspects of the nuclear power plant project in its preparation stages, including financing and other issues connected with the nuclear cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan. The Navoiy Region in Uzbekistan was designated as the potential site for the installation of the future nuclear power station. According to Likhachev, ROSATOM’s specialists will soon visit this site in order to assess its suitability for such intricate construction work. In addition, the Head of ROSATOM announced that his company will use a special approach when building the Uzbek nuclear power plant, which will reduce installation time and save resources. Thus far ROSATOM has employed this approach in constructing nuclear power stations in Russia and Belarus. At the same time, modern nuclear infrastructure in Uzbekistan will be developed.
It is public knowledge that collaboration in the sphere of nuclear power take the relationship between the two nations to a new level. Nuclear power plant installation is a long-term process, which requires a special level of cooperation between the two sides. It involves representatives from many other economic, scientific and manufacturing spheres and not only areas connected with atomic energy. This process will require signing of numerous contracts, elimination of custom barriers, construction of new roads, infrastructure, and new residential areas, etc. Besides, it is worth keeping in mind that it will take at least 60 years to build this nuclear power plant, during this period Russian specialists as well as their Uzbek colleagues, trained in Russia, will continue to maintain and run the facility.
Collaboration in scientific and technical areas will be given a strong impetus, and we can expect the same effect on spheres that are not connected to nuclear energy. ROSATOM representatives have announced that they intend to offer Uzbekistan help in spheres such as economy, the oil and gas industry, the thermal power industry, the hydroelectric power industry and other important for the entire Central Asian region areas as agriculture and water desalination.
Hence, we can expect that collaboration in a complex, knowledge-intensive and expensive industry such as nuclear power will lead to a much broader cooperation in the spheres of research and technology, economy and transport between Russia and Uzbekistan and to a strong long-term partnership on a wide range of issues between these two nations. In the future, developing such relations with other Central Asian nations is possible if Uzbekistan’s experience proves positive.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”