November 2016, the Majilis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan approved the creation of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Low-Enriched Uranium Bank on its territory.
Low-enriched uranium (LEU) is a material used for making fuel for nuclear power plants (NPP). The International Atomic Energy Agency decided to create a strategic LEU warehouse in 2006. The project’s aim is to secure an uninterrupted supply of fuel to the NPPs of the IAEA Member States. However, the Bank will not be used for regular LEU supply. This will be an emergency reserve, which will only be used in exceptional circumstances. The IAEA will own the official LEU reserves.
It was decided to place the Bank in one of the Agency’s Member States. The location of choice might be a state with no nuclear weapons but with the technologies and infrastructure to work with LEU. In addition, the country should enjoy a good reputation in the IAEA. Kazakhstan complied with all these requirements. The Republic of Kazakhstan is a large-scale producer of uranium with the relevant technologies and experience, which includes processing high-enriched uranium into LEU (which is important for nuclear disarmament). Kazakhstan decided to participate in the development of peaceful atomic energy and filed an application to the IAEA in summer 2011. Kazakhstan proposed two locations for the Bank: a plot at the former Semipalatinsk test site and the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (Ust-Kamenogorsk). After inspection of both sites by the Agency’s experts, the second site was chosen. The Ulba Metallurgical Plant has almost a half a century of experience in working with radioactive materials and high-skilled experts – a legacy of the Soviet school. In addition, the enterprise has been greatly upgraded and it meets the highest safety requirements.
In April 2015, a decree of the Kazakhstan Parliament approved a treaty with the IAEA on the creation of the LEU Bank in Kazakhstan. In August 2015, this Treaty was signed by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Kazakhstan Erlan Idrissov and the IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.
The preparation works involving IAEA experts are in full swing. Prior to the placement of the LEU Bank in Kazakhstan, its government will have to improve both the infrastructure and legislation in order to comply with international safety criteria. The foundation has already been laid: the law On the Use of Nuclear Power was adopted in January 2016. IAEA experts participated in the preparation of some amendments to the new law.
There is a lot still to be done to make the new warehouse as safe as possible for the local citizens and the environment. All the material will be stored in containers that comply with European standards. According to IAEA data, the uranium reserves will be enough to provide electricity to a big city for 3 years.
The IAEA will bear all the expenses related to uranium transportation, taxes, and guarantees in respect of the LEU Bank. Kazakhstan will have to run the warehouse at its own expense – provide it with electricity, pay salaries to the employees (citizens of Kazakhstan), etc.
In acknowledgement of the placement and maintenance of the LEU Bank on its territory, Kazakhstan expects that the IAEA will assist it in the development of the nuclear industry. Right now, the IAEA Commission is working in Kazakhstan and conducting general research of the nuclear infrastructure. Upon completion of its work, the Commission will prepare a report with recommendations for the development of Kazakhstan’s nuclear industry. The Republic possesses huge reserves of uranium and ranks first in the world in terms of its production. Uranium from Kazakhstan forms a large part of the world uranium market. Moreover, Kazakhstan has long dreamed of supplying more than just raw materials or semi-finished products to other countries. It hopes to independently carry out all the stages of the nuclear fuel cycle right up to uranium conversion into nuclear fuel for the nuclear power plants. The export of nuclear fuel is greatly more profitable. The President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev mentioned this objective during a meeting with the Chairman of the Board of Kazatomprom Askar Zhumagaliyev that took place in early November 2016. He noted that to reach this goal, Kazakhstan should intensify cooperation with other states and international organizations in the nuclear industry.
It should be noted that one of the major partners of Kazakhstan in the nuclear industry is Russia. Owing to its interaction with Russia, Kazakhstan has made progress in the independent production of nuclear fuel. This cooperation continues: in October 2016, Astana hosted the Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum with the participation of the Presidents of the two countries – Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev. As a result, Russia and Kazakhstan adopted a plan of collaboration until 2018 and signed a Memorandum on expanding strategic partnership in the field of the nuclear fuel cycle. The Memorandum confirms all the previous agreements between the two countries in respect of the collaboration in the nuclear industry, including uranium production and processing. In addition, the document mentions the opportunity of Russia and Kazakhstan’s mutual participation in IAEA projects.
The placement of the LEU Bank in the territory of the Republic is a grand gesture towards the IAEA, which will raise the profile of Kazakhstan in the eyes of other states. The LEU bank will prevent existing nuclear reactors from experiencing fuel deficit and it will promote the non-proliferation of the nuclear weapons. In fact, countries wishing to develop peaceful atomic energy often have to enrich uranium on their own in order to make fuel from it. Meanwhile, the IAEA fears that some of them may exceed the enrichment level for peaceful purposes and obtain material for the creation of nuclear weapons. The LEU Bank, which any of the IAEA Member States may turn to, will mean they no longer have to enrich uranium independently thus reducing the threat of the nuclear weapon proliferation.
Thus, Kazakhstan may become a strategically important member of the IAEA and participate in ensuring global security. Apart from a reputation boost and assistance in the nuclear projects, this may attract the attention of foreign investors. According to the government of Kazakhstan, the volume of foreign investment in the country’s economy increased 5 times in the first half of 2016 and amounted to almost 6 billion US dollars. This growth is undoubtedly linked to Kazakhstan’s improved international standing, which has partially resulted from its cooperation with the IAEA.