Kazakhstan’s international energy image is now that of one of the world’s rising oil exporters, an extraordinary feat given that, two decades ago its hydrocarbon output was beyond insignificant when the USSR collapsed. The vast Central Asian nation, larger than Western Europe, has now quietly passed another energy milestone.
Kazakhstan produces 33 percent of world’s mined uranium, followed by Canada at 18 percent and Australia, with 11 percent of global output. Kazakhstan contains the world’s second-largest uranium reserves, estimated at 1.5 million tons. Until two years ago Kazakhstan was the world’s No. 3 uranium miner, following Australia and Canada.
Together the trio is responsible for about 62 percent of the world’s production of mined uranium.
According to Kazakhstan’s State Corporation for Atomic Energy, Kazatomprom, during January-September, the country mined 13,957 tons of uranium. “The volume of uranium mining in the Republic of Kazakhstan (for January – September) comprised 13,957 tons, which is 11 percent higher than the same period last year.” Even more impressive, Kazatomprom’s revenues soared 72 percent year-on-year. Kazatomprom is the state-owned Kazakh national operator for the export of uranium, as well as rare metals, nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants, special equipment, technologies, and dual-purpose materials.
To put Kazakhstan’s accomplishment in context, a mere five years ago Kazakhstan produced 5,279 tons of uranium.
While the March disaster at Japan’s Fuskuhima nuclear complex has caused several European nations to reassess their commitment to nuclear power, Kazakhstan’s regional markets seem assured in Asia’s rising economic powerhouses China and India. While Beijing has reacted to Fukushima by ordering thorough inspections of the nation’s nuclear power plants, China’s Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense in its 11th Five-Year Plan for the Nuclear Industry announced China intended to produce 40 gigawatts of nuclear power electrical generating capacity within a decade, even though nuclear power currently accounts for just 1.4 percent of China’s electrical power generation.
If China follows through with its ambitious nuclear power plant construction plans the country will need an estimated 44 million pounds of uranium annually, as by 2020 the country will have a total of 77 planned and proposed new reactors. Of China’s 11 current nuclear power plants, the oldest, Qingshan-1, only came online in 1991.
India’s nuclear ambitions parallel China’s. While nuclear power currently accounts for only 3-4 percent of the country’s electrical output, India has 19 planned and proposed nuclear power reactors on the drawing board.
But the specter of the Japanese nuclear crisis has even overshadowed Astana’s optimism.
Speaking at the Minex conference in Astana on 5-7April, Kazatomprom president Vladimir Shkol’nik stated that the Fukushima debacle would not greatly influence the Kazakh state atomic company’s plans.
Despite Shkol’nik’s optimism, immediately after the Fukushima disaster the world uranium spot price plummeted from over $70 per pound to just $49 per pound, but has since rebounded to roughly $55 in November.
But Kazakhstan is moving beyond the mere mining of uranium to producing nuclear fuel rods. On 4 November French Industry and Energy Minister Eric Besson signed a contract with the Kazakh government allowing France’s Areva to open a nuclear fuel plant with Kazatomprom. A statement from Besson’s office noted, “This deal commits to the creation in Kazakhstan, the top global producer of uranium, of a nuclear fuel production plant dedicated to the Asian market. The construction of this plant could start as soon as the feasibility study is completed by the end of the first quarter of 2012.” According to the agreement, the facility will consist of a new production line at Kazakhstan’s ULBA metallurgical plant that will be 51 percent owned by Kazatomprom and 49 percent by Areva.
And flush with cash, next year Kazatomprom may buy into the Russian Federation’s Urals Electrochemical Integrated Plant (UEIP), the largest uranium enrichment facility within Russian State Nuclear Energy Corporation Rosatom. Last month Rosatom CEO Sergei Kirienko told journalists, “We are involved in purely technical procedures now, taking into account the organization and relevant restrictions (of a closed nuclear facility). We are moving within a set timetable. We have a plan – to complete all work in 2012. And we should begin working with Kazatomprom in 2012.”
Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency released its 2011 “World Energy Outlook,” which states that if the world is serious about global warming, it should consider the continued use of nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With Kazakhstan’s oil exports currently running at 1.74 million barrels per day and the nation being now the world’s largest uranium miner, it would seem that Astana is going to continue to rake in the cash no matter what energy policies the world adopts in the short term.