During the State of the Nation address given on 1 September, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev outlined Nur-Sultan’s plans to accelerate Kazakhstan’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Tokayev announced that over the course of the next year, the Kazakh government, along with the country’s Samruk Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, will “study the possibility of developing a safe and environmentally-friendly nuclear power industry in Kazakhstan” in order to maintain sufficient supplies of electricity while fulfilling Nur-Sultan’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
Kazakhstan’s interest in developing a nuclear energy programme comes as many countries in Europe are still hotly debating what role nuclear energy should play in efforts to curb emissions. A coalition of German and Austrian investors recently wrote to the European Commission, urging the institution to leave nuclear energy off of the list of sustainable economic activities under the bloc’s green taxonomy. At the same time, this summer has seen regular protests at Germany’s six remaining reactors, with pro-nuclear groups calling on Berlin to rethink its policy of phasing out nuclear energy by the end of next year, given the urgent need to tackle climate change.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) recently argued that nuclear power is essential to achieving climate goals, while some prominent energy experts have echoed the warnings that the imperative to shift to low-carbon sources of energy as swiftly as possible makes this an inopportune time to move away from nuclear energy. “We can’t afford to shut down nuclear because we’re going to build more coal like Germany has done over the last 15 years”, Sean Kidney, the CEO of Climate Bonds Initiative and a member of the European Commission’s advisory Platform on Sustainable Finance said. “Emissions reduction is a critical metric, you can’t discount something just because you don’t like it”.
It’s a pragmatic and forward-looking sentiment that President Tokayev seems to share. In his recent address to the nation, his third since becoming President in 2019, the Kazakh leader laid out the challenge of becoming carbon neutral while ensuring sufficient energy supply for Kazakhstan’s growing population and economy. Nur-Sultan has long relied on an energy mix dominated by fossil fuels—in 2018, coal was responsible for roughly 70% of Kazakhstan’s electricity generation, followed by natural gas with 20%—yet has been quick to embrace the need for a low-carbon future. In fact, Kazakhstan was the first member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to ratify the Paris Agreement and to lay out a climate policy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
As Tokayev acknowledged in his recent speech, following through on these commitments will be a formidable challenge. While Nur-Sultan is seeking to increase the share of renewable energy to 15% by 2030 and is cooperating with the European Union as well as international institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in its efforts to kickstart renewable industries, it is clear that renewable energy sources cannot be developed fast enough to meet the needs of what is already one of the world’s most energy-intensive economies.
“With the gradual decline of the coal era,” Tokayev underscored in his address, “in addition to renewables, we will have to think about sources of reliable basic energy generation. By 2030, there will be a shortage of electricity in Kazakhstan. Global experience suggests the most optimal solution—a peaceful atom”. Two days after the address to the nation, Tokayev was even more explicit in remarks at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok: “Kazakhstan needs a nuclear power plant”, the president emphasized.
Kazakhstan previously had one Russian-made nuclear reactor, which operated from 1972 to 1999, though its primary purpose was to desalinate water. The country is nevertheless well-placed to return to the industry. The world’s leading uranium producer with 12% of global uranium reserves, Kazakhstan already has a major plant making nuclear fuel pellets and plays host to the IAEA’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) bank.
Central Asia currently does not have any operational nuclear power plants, though Uzbekistan has signalled its intent to build two VVER-1200 pressurised water reactors. As the region’s countries attempt to meet ambitious climate goals, however, more governments may follow Kazakhstan’s lead by determining that peaceful nuclear power is the most logical path to reducing emissions while growing the economy.