Russia’s nuclear technologies are world-famous for their reliability, enhanced safety and reasonable costs. The Russian Federation’s State Nuclear Energy Corporation, Rosatom, has many projects in many nations of Europe, Africa and Asia. Uzbekistan became the first nation in the Central Asian region to make the decision to harness the peaceful atom with the aid of Russia.
For a long time, the Uzbek government refused to consider the possibility of building a nuclear power plant (NPP) because of concerns about the high seismic activity in Central Asia. Their doubts were further amplified by the catastrophe, which was caused by an earthquake and a tsunami, that befell the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. However, afterwards the Uzbek government was forced to reconsider its stance on nuclear power because of the difficult economic situation in the nation. During the period when Uzbekistan was still a part of the USSR, Soviet scientists learned that there were several places in this nation where it would be safe to build an NPP. In addition, after the Fukushima disaster, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) significantly tightened measures related to safety of nuclear reactors.
Uzbekistan is in need of rapid and sustainable socio-economic development. In our age, this is not possible without a large amount of fairly inexpensive energy resources. It is essential to develop manufacturing and create work places. Some people believe that unemployment in certain regions of Uzbekistan is so high that it could result in a social upheaval. For example, there is data indicating that approximately 30% (roughly 417,000 people) of working-age citizens in the Andijan Region are not employed. In truth, almost 300,000 of them find work abroad, but more than 100,000 unemployed young people do remain at home. The situation is equally difficult in the Qashqadaryo, Samarqand and Fergana regions.
It is worth noting that the Fergana and Andijan regions of Uzbekistan are located in the Fergana Valley, whose territory is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It is a fairly turbulent place, which on more than one occasion became a staging ground for ethnic conflicts with a substantial number of casualties. The Fergana pogroms took place there in 1989, and so did the violence in Osh in 1990 and 2010. The vast majority of the unemployed population in these parts cannot be but a source of concern for the authorities. Other issues include low salary levels among the employed members of the population, as well as activities undertaken by underground organizations linked to international terrorist networks, which are propagandizing extremist views among the populace. It is well known that this sort of propaganda is more palatable among poorer people who are angry with the government, and who think they have nothing to lose.
The situation is such that Uzbekistan urgently needs large amounts of energy to develop its economy, and for the sake of this, it has had to overcome its reservations about nuclear energy.
It is worth noting that this nation possesses substantial reserves of uranium ore and exports uranium to other countries. If a nuclear power plant is built in Uzbekistan, its uranium ore deposits will be able to fuel it for dozens of years.
In 2014, work on the Uzbek nuclear program began. As expected, the Russian Federation was chosen to work on the first Uzbek nuclear power plant.
In December 2017, Russia and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, in accordance with which the Russian Federation has undertaken the responsibility of building an NPP in Uzbekistan with two modern Russian reactors, VVER-1200, which have a particularly reliable safety system. In addition, the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan agreed on the construction of a number of research reactors, on the joint use of new uranium deposits, and on the training of Uzbek nuclear scientists by Russian experts.
Accordingly, in July 2018, a campus of Russia’s National Research Nuclear University (MEPhI) was established in Tashkent. The same month, Uzbekistan’s nuclear development agency (UzAtom) was founded under the auspices of the government.
The inter-governmental cooperation agreement on building the nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan by Rosatom was signed in Moscow in September 2018 by the Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, and his Uzbek counterpart, Abdulla Oripov.
At the beginning of October 2018, a joint seminar, organized by a Rosatom working group and the IAEA, to discuss the plans to construct the NPP in Uzbekistan took place. Rosatom announced that they were planning on building the most up-to-date plant that would fully comply with all of the IAEA requirements. Russia’s state corporation added that the plant could remain operational from 60 to 80 years, and would generate up to 20% of all the electricity produced in Uzbekistan. Representatives of the Uzbek power industry and the scientific community also attended the event. According to them, Uzbekistan chose the Russian Federation as its partner because it is a world leader in this field and has the latest technologies.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Uzbekistan from 18 to 19 October 2018. Along with Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, he took part in a ceremony to mark the launch of the project to build the first Uzbek NPP. Its first stage entailed the search for the best site for the construction.
At first, the plan was to build the nuclear power plant in the Navoiy Region of Uzbekistan. However, a decision was then made to move the site to the Jizzakh Region, near the Aydar Lake.
In February 2019, Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed the framework for developing nuclear power in Uzbekistan for 2019-2029. A loan from Russia will, to a great extent, finance the construction, which, according to various estimates, could cost from $11 billion to $13 billion. The construction work is scheduled to begin in 2022, while the first nuclear plant unit will come online in 2028.
In May 2019, the international energy exhibition, Power Uzbekistan-2019, was held in Tashkent. During this event, Rosatom signed a number of agreements linked to the construction of the NPP with its Uzbek partners. Rosatom signed a roadmap with the Ministry of Energy of Uzbekistan on the second phase of the project. During this stage, among other things, preparations for research on the potential effect of the NPP on the environment will be carried out.
At that same time, Rosatom and UzAtom, the nuclear development agency, opened an information center on nuclear technologies in Tashkent. The participants who attended the opening ceremony included Alexey Likhachev, the Chief Executive of Rosatom, and Jurabek Mirzamahmudov, Uzbekistan’s First Deputy Minister of Energy and the head of UzAtom. The purpose of the center is to inform and educate the public about the Uzbek nuclear program in order to increase its popularity and to mitigate concerns of the Uzbek populace about the safety of the NPP scheduled to be built.
In July 2019, Alisher Sultonov, the Minister of Energy of Uzbekistan, stated that the leadership of the nation made a decision to build two more power plant units in addition to the two that had already been scheduled to be constructed. The four-unit NPP should be able to generate so much energy that Uzbekistan may even be able to export it.
It is clear that the Russian nuclear power plant has instilled much hope in Uzbekistan. It is possible that it will provide the support that the Uzbek economy needs to make a big leap forward. And the fact that this will happen with the aid of the Russian Federation will define the relationship between the two countries for many years to come.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”