|Fig. 1: Kazakh uranium reserves.|
Kazakhstan is a former Soviet republic situated in Central Asia. It borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. While Kazakhstan was a part of USSR, it served as a base for raw metals of Soviet Union. Therefore, Soviet government put a considerable amount of effort into developing heavy industry and the entire infrastructure of the country. After the collapse of the Union in 1991, heavy industry has become the driving force of economic development of the country. As a result, for the economic prosperity of Kazakhstan, a reliable and effective functioning of the industry is required. This, in turn, relies on a continuous supply of electrical power. Additionally, electricity is an intrinsic factor of ensuring civilized living conditions for 15.4 million people.  This paper will investigate the potential of the country in nuclear industry as an alternative source for electricity generation for the country in the future.
In 2003, about 70% of electrical power in Kazakhstan was generated from coal. The rest was partitioned among water, gas and oil as indicated in Table 1. Industry was the main consumer of electrical power with 68.7% of total consumption. The rest was partitioned among households, agriculture and so forth as indicated in Table 2. In Kazakhstan, the rated capacity of electrical power production is 18,331 MW. 87.7% of this is made by thermal plants and 12.3% by hydroelectric power stations. Condensation power plants provide 48.9% of the rated capacity (36.6% heating plants and 2.3% gas turbine plants). The Government of Kazakhstan expects electrical power consumption to be 78 billion kWh (2.8 x 1017 joules) in 2010 and 91 billion kWh (3.3 x 1017 joules) in 2015.  The only nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan was closed in 1997, which brought the fraction of electricity generation of the country from nuclear sources to zero. 
|Table 1: Kazakh energy supply.|
For assessing Kazakhstan's nuclear energy generation capability, its current achievements and potential in each step of nuclear fuel cycle will be considered. Uranium must go through several steps to produce an efficient fuel, which will then be used in a nuclear reactor to produce electricity. These steps are usually divided into two main groups - the front end and the back end of nuclear cycle. The front end is composed of mining and milling, conversion, enrichment and fuel fabrication. The back end refers to temporary storage, reprocessing, and recycling before eventual disposal as waste. 
|Table 2: Kazakh energy use.|
Uranium ore can be recovered through conventional open pit mining or deep shaft mines. It can also be recovered through the in-situ leaching method (ISL). Nearly all of Kazakhstan's uranium mines use ISL method . ISL method is applicable only to sandstone-hosted uranium deposits. These deposits should also be located below the water table in a confined aquifer. The main mechanism of the method is the dissolution of uranium. It is dissolved in either sulfuric acid or a mildly alkaline solution that is injected into the aquifer through a borehole.  Uranium orebody is left in the ground. The uranium-bearing solution is then pumped back up to the surface, leaving the rock undisturbed, through another borehole. 
In Kazakhstan, uranium exploration started in 1948. Economic mineralization was found in several parts of the country. Today Kazakhstan possesses 1.6 million tons of U reserves. Most of Kazakhstan's uranium reserves (73.9%) are concentrated in the Southeast of the country. There is another 16.5% in the North and 1.8% in the Southwest. State-owned national nuclear company Kazatomprom is the only organization that is involved in uranium mining, reprocessing, export and import operations on the territory of Kazakhstan. Kazatomprom is a holding company with six affiliates and some joint ventures with partners such as Cameco, COGEMA, TVEL and TENEX.  Currently, Kazakhstan is the world's largest uranium exporter with 14,020 tons of U per year. The country is planning to produce 18,700 tons of U in 2015 and 27,000 tons of U in 2025. 
|Fig. 2: The nuclear fuel cycle. |
Milled uranium oxide, U3O8, must be converted to uranium hexafluoride, UF6.  In June 2008, Kazatomprom and Cameco Corporation established a new joint venture - Ulba Conversion LLP. Annual capacity at the future enterprise is planned at 12,000 tonnes UF6. Commission and production with an annual capacity of 750 tonnes UF6 is planned to start in 2014. 
During the enrichment process, uranium hexafluoride is enriched to produce uranium oxide. As part of the process, gaseous uranium hexafluoride is separated into two streams. One stream is enriched to the required level, which is 3-4%, and is known as low-enriched uranium. The second stream is gradually depleted in U-235 and is known as depleted uranium or "tails." At present, the construction of a uranium enrichment plant in Angarsk (Russia, Irkutsk oblast) is at a stage of feasibility study development and coordination with the first product output planned for 2011. It is intended that a 5,000 kSWU design capacity will be achieved by 2013.  According to Kazatomprom's press center, uranium will be enriched using an economically sound, energy-saving gas-centrifugal method.
|Table 3: Kazakh uranium reserves|
The next stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, after enrichment, is production of fuel pellets from uranium dioxide (UO2). Fuel pellets are one of the main compounds of nuclear fuel for Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). The Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP), a subsidiary enterprise of Kazatomprom in Ust-Kamenogorsk, is one of the world's largest enterprises producing fuel compounds for NPP. UMP has been supplying Russian reactors with fuel for roughly 40 year now. Kazatomprom is also a certified supplier of uranium dioxide powder to an American company General Electric. 
In 2007, Kazatomprom and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) signed cooperation agreements, as a result of which Kazatomprom will also become one of the nuclear fuel suppliers for CGNPC's NPPs. At present, Kazatomprom conducts active work on qualification tests and fuel compound certification together with its partners from Japan, Korea, China, the USA, France, and Canada. 
Currently, there is no electricity generation from nuclear sources in Kazakhstan. The country's only fast breeder reactor operated in Aktau (MAEK-Kazatomprom) from 1972 to 1999. Plans exist to start building a new plant at Aktau in 2011. The plant will host two VBER-300 reactor units, which are products of Atomnye Stancii. Atomnye Stancii is a joint venture between Russia and Kazakhstan that was designed to design, build and sell small and medium sized reactors. The existing site of MAEK-Kazatomprom in Aktau has the necessary infrastructure for the construction and operation of NPPs and this will make project implementation significantly cheaper. 
|Table 4: Kazatomprom revenue from uranium mining. |
Kazakhstan has the world's second largest uranium reserves (Table 5). In 2009, it became a leader in uranium ore production with 14000 tonnes of U per year. In cooperation with Canadian Cameco Corporation, Kazakh Kazatomprom is planning to start the operation of uranium hexafluoride conversion plant by 2014. In cooperation with Russian, Kazatomprom is currently running feasibility study of a uranium enrichment plant in Angarsk, Russia. The first product output is planned for 2011. Kazakhstan can also produce fuel for its NPPs domestically at Ulba Methalurgical Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan. Thus, building a nuclear power plant will increase Kazakhstan's energy independence and, as a result, national security.
|Table 5: Uranium reserves by country. |
It should be noted that the nuclear fast-breeder reactor BN-350 has operated in Aktau, for more than 25 years, on the base of the Mangistau nuclear energy complex. There is qualified staff that for 50 years has provided the constant operation of BN-350 and is now dealing with reactor decommission. There are specialists from the institute of nuclear physics in place, and new staff could be educated while the plant is built. Thus, Kazakhstan is ready for NPP's construction and operation.
© Ernar Sagatov. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.
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