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The Future of Kazakhstan: Atom for Peace or Wind and Solar Power?

Why Kazakhstan needs nuclear power plant if the country has a developed strategy on development of renewable energy sources that can replace coal power plants?

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“By 2030, Kazakhstan will face electricity deficit,” the president of Kazakhstan commented the news of possible construction of the nuclear power plant this April.

In fact, this is quite a generalised statement. Those people who claim that Kazakhstan has a surplus of power are right. But they are right by halves.

The power system of Kazakhstan is divided into service areas – Southern, Northern and Western. The Northern and Western service areas have too much power, whereas the Southern area rather lacks power.

From the document “Forecasted balance of electrical power of the United Power System of the Republic of Kazakhstan during 2019-2025”.

The shortage in the Southern service area is covered by power transmission from the north; however, it leads to high losses and impairs general reliability of the system. As shown in the tables, the ministry of energy forecasts gradual increase in power shortage in the south every year.

On April 3, 2019, the president of Russia Vladimir Putin suggested that the president of Kazakhstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev look into the possibility of construction of a nuclear power plant according to Russian technologies. The following day, the deputy minister of energy of Kazakhstan, Magzum Mirzagaliev, claimed that once a decision is made, the nuclear power plant would be built in the village of Ulken in Almaty region.

“Only after detailed study of possibilities and potential of all suggested projects we will choose the best possible and acceptable for Kazakhstan power generation technologies. If we choose a nuclear power plant to cover capacity shortage in strict accordance with the laws of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kazakh government will reach a decision on the construction of the nuclear power plant only after public hearings and coordination with local executive bodies that are located in the places of possible construction of the nuclear power plant, as well as taking into account whether it is needed to solve national economic issues, and whether there are required conditions available and no security threats are present. Thus, we urge to stay away from jumping to hasty conclusions and opinions. Today there are no causes for concerns,” the ministry emphasised then (cited from tengrinews.kz).

The people did not believe in these promises: social media exploded criticising the very possibility of construction of the nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan.

It was not the first plan of nuclear power plant construction – this decision was almost made in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. In 2013, Kazakhstan almost signed the agreement with Russia, but it didn’t go any further.

So far, there are no new details about construction of the nuclear power plant. In the meantime, information about the shortage of power in Kazakhstan, discussed by Tokayev, is still widely circulated.

Will we switch to solar power?

The impulses of the Kazakh authorities to construct the nuclear power plant are well understandable: the country has a heavy supply of uranium, while Russia offers a subsidised loan with financing of 90 per cent of cost of works at 3 per cent rate per annum. The Russian government has granted an interest-free loan to Turkey (however, the terms and conditions are absolutely different).

Development of renewable energy sources (RES) is related mainly to the environmental and climatic agenda. The transition from coal to nuclear or renewable energy will reduce not only the level of environmental impact, but also greenhouse gas emission.

But when it comes to solar or wind energy, experts, first of all, emphasise the random and mobile nature of energy. The member of the coordinating board for RES development of the ministry of energy of Kazakhstan, Oleg Arkhipkin, said that it could create serious problems for the steady power system operation.

“We cannot disconnect consumers in case of changing weather, for example, when it’s cloudy or windless weather.  Power storing technologies are not enough to ensure their full-scale use in large power grids. Therefore, the use of wind and solar plants has certain technical restrictions,” Arkhipkin said.

Introduction of the advanced bidding mechanism for RES projects has significantly reduced the cost of solar- and wind-generated electricity. However, it still remains much higher than the rates of conventional power plants in Kazakhstan.

In addition to the variable nature of electricity generation, wind and especially solar plants are characterised by low rates of electricity output, according to the expert.

“If the capacity factor for conventional plants, given the electricity demands, is 70-90 per cent, for wind plants it is 35 per cent, and for solar plants it is 18-25 per cent. As a result, 1 MW of solar plant generates 3-4 times less energy than 1 MW of coal, gas or hydraulic power plant,” Oleg Arkhipkin said.

He noted that wind power plants are somewhat better, yet they generate less energy than conventional power plants do. Therefore, solar and wind energy becomes expensive due to low generation rates.

Now conventional power plants have to buy electricity from RES and have to support solar and wind power plants. A worker of TPP, who asked not to be named, said the ministry of energy constantly receives letters with a request to cancel this requirement.

According to the Kazenergy Association, currently conventional power plants spend maximum 2-4.5 per cent of all their costs to buy RES-generated power. However, by 2021, when power generation increases significantly, expenditures of power plants associated with the purchase of RES-generated power will be 15-30 per cent of total expenditures.

However, renewable energy sources represent the technology whose development is being funded now by plenty of developed countries. Therefore, experts predict that the cost of renewable energy will reduce noticeably and the major problem of impossible storage of renewable energy will be solved.

Photo: CABAR.asia

Currently, the number of RES plants in Kazakhstan is still low. Their share in the total electricity generation is 1.3 per cent. This is not enough, while the economy of Kazakhstan cannot afford building them and covering expenses without smash-up of coal plants. Therefore, the state speaks of construction of other energy sources.

One of such options is a nuclear power plant. It is contradictory and unpopular among many people for obvious reasons. However, it has quite many supporters.

Atom for peace

Construction of the nuclear power plant is not the most beneficial project for short-term investment. Its pay-back period comes only after 20 years, but the long-term operation of the nuclear power plant is beneficial, after all, in terms of economy, according to Oleg Arkhipkin. Besides, nuclear power plants, unlike RES, generate constant power at lower rates.

The expert calculated the approximate cost of energy generated by new nuclear power plants based on the Russian standard project of a nuclear power plant with the VVER-1200 reactor, whose equivalent can be built in Kazakhstan.

This project is implemented at Voronezh nuclear power plant 2, first block of which was launched in 2017. In calculations, we should take into account the fact that in Russia the price for end user is made of two parts:

  1. Payment for generation services. The return on investment is stable in Russia due to the mechanism of bilateral power generation agreements, which sell 1 MW of power for 3 million roubles (47.13 thousand dollars) per month or about 4.16 roubles (0.065 dollars) for 1 kWh.
  2. Electricity priceAccording to the electric supply agreement, 1 kWh is sold for 1.37 roubles (0.022 dollars).

As a result, the price of electricity at Voronezh nuclear power plant 2 is 5.53 roubles (0.087 dollars) per 1 kWh.

However, the rate for Kazakhstan to support RES will be 31.68 tenge (0.081 dollars) per 1 kWh. So, it may be concluded that in Kazakhstan the power generated by modern nuclear power plants will be more expensive than power generated by renewable energy sources.

“However, after the payback period, the price of nuclear power generation will be determined based on the market value and the rate will not exceed 1.57 roubles (0.025 dollars) per 1 kWh in prices of 2018. As a result, the average price of electricity will be around 19.3 tenge (0.049 dollars) for 1 kWh (in prices of 2019) for the whole period of nuclear power plant operation (more than 60 years). This price is lower than the cost of RES-generated energy even given the predicted reduction of rates of wind and solar plants,” Arkhipkin said.

What if it explodes?

The probability of a nuclear accident is the key factor, which makes the humanity stand against the nuclear power plant. A Kazakhstan-based ecologist Dmitry Kalmykov, who repeatedly stood against construction of the nuclear power plant, said it’s only the risk of explosion that eliminates all the advantages despite the fact that nuclear plants are much cleaner than coal plants.

“The nuclear power is safe until the nuclear reactor explodes. As long as everything is ok, it is million times cleaner than the coal plant, once everything goes bad, it becomes million times dirtier. Therefore, we think it’s better to use safer technologies. They might be not so lovely and sophisticated, yet they cannot put an end to the whole region for 40-100 years,” the ecologist said.

The nuclear power is safe until the nuclear reactor explodes. 

However, we cannot ignore the development of “green power”. According to MIT experts, in six years wind and solar plants can become as profitable as nuclear or thermal power plants if storage technologies are developed.

In turn, Oleg Arkhipkin thinks that concerns about nuclear power plants are somewhat exaggerated.

“The probability of any event is nonzero, but modern reactors are so much safe that they will cool down even if the coolant system is turned off due to passive systems,” the specialist said.

However, the expert of Greenpeace (Russia) in radiation safety, Rashid Alimov, said that NPP is unacceptable at any case, while the statements of power engineers about clean NPP are not true.

“Even in normal accident-free operation, NPPs emit a portion of radioactive nuclides into the atmosphere. There are studies that show that the risk of leukaemia in children increases near nuclear plants. The long-term risk is related to the need of permanent (comparable to the history of human civilisation) disposal of radioactive wastes. Currently, the spent nuclear fuel of NPPs is stored mainly at the plants. Small accidents (shutdown of reactors, etc.) occur at nuclear plants on a regular basis,” Alimov said.

Storage of nuclear waste is a separate matter. Ecologist Dmitry Kalmykov noted that this is an ambiguous matter because nuclear plants store their waste properly – they ensure security, supervision and compliance with standards.

The nuclear power industry produces thousands of tonnes of waste in the country, while the coal industry produces hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste.

“Unlike them, coal power plants just throw their wastes outdoors. By the way, their wastes are also hazardous as they are toxic. And unlike nuclear plants, coal plants neither store, nor process them. The nuclear power industry produces thousands of tonnes of waste in the country, while the coal industry produces hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste. In fact, the environmental impact of coal power plants is much bigger. Until the nuclear power plant explodes,” Kalmykov said.

He noted that such questions do not have simple answers; therefore, they need public and transparent discussions.

What the world chooses and why

Leaders in the use of nuclear power are the United States, France, Japan and Russia. China, Russia and India build more power plants.

In general, the nuclear power industry slowed down after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, but some experts predict it has a promising future. For example, construction of the fourth generation reactor will allow to reduce the level of hazardous waste (and make the electricity cheaper), as well as develop the closure of nuclear fuel cycle. It will improve the efficiency of uranium use tens of times.

In the meantime, the majority of governments are not satisfied with such perspectives. More and more countries refuse nuclear power.

Thus, France adopted a law that would lead to drastic reduction of power generated by nuclear plants. In the interview to DW. Marc Bussieras, who leads the department of strategic researches of the largest French state power-generating company Électricité de France (EdF), said that “today France builds renewable energy sources for costs reasons.”

Germany, Spain, Taiwan, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden and Austria have gradually refused nuclear power. Energy strategies of these countries are based on the shift to renewable energy sources. Some states in the USA have declared such plans.

In Spain, not all experts have taken the news with enthusiasm, including Jose Bogas, advisor of the largest Spanish energy company Endesa. They speak of the high prices of RES and ask to prolong the term of NPP operation.

Which pool of countries Kazakhstan is going to choose remains unclear. One thing that is clear is that the increasing shortage of energy in the south of the country should be solved by environmentally friendly generation that can cover the needs of the region for years ahead.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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