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Kazak President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in a wide-ranging state-of-the nation has proposed holding a referendum on the issue of NPP construction or refusal to build a nuclear power plant to a national referendum. The Ministry of energy said that, together with interested state bodies, Deputies of Parliament, experts in this field, and public activists, it will consider all issues related to the implementation of the President's instructions, work out other aspects and inform the public about this work.

"In my opinion, the referendum will be aimed primarily at expressing the opinion of Kazakhstanis about the need to develop technologies in this area, and the government, for its part, will offer socially acceptable solutions," said Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliyev.

In August, the Energy Ministry had provided an update on previously conducted studies related to the choice of reactor technologies and siting for Kazakhstan’s first NPP. The Ministry said that, based on studies, Ulken village in the Zhambyl district of Almaty region had been chosen as the most preferred locality. The Ministry also recommended choosing a technology “proven by the experience of construction and successful operation of a similar plant”. The shortlist included the following potential suppliers of nuclear technologies:

China National Nuclear Corporation’s HPR-1000 (Hualong One) reactor;Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power’s APR1400 reactor;Rosatom’s VVER-1200 and VVER-1000 reactors; andEDF’s EPR-1200 reactor.

At a public discussion on NPP construction held in the Bolshoi village of Zhambyl District of Almaty region residents supported the development of nuclear energy in the region and noted that the project will become an impetus for the high importance of the region for socio-economic development.

Some public figures have already initiated additional discussions in other nearby regions in order to adhere to the principle of transparency and provide feedback to the public, take into account the opinions and interests of all stakeholders.

In his address, President Tokayev noted: “The development of nuclear energy has become an important economic and political issue. As you know, there are different opinions about whether it is necessary to build a nuclear power plant.” He said: “Kazakhstan is the largest uranium mining country in the world. So, we have the right to build a nuclear plant on our land. Some experts argue that small nuclear stations should be built. However, many citizens and a number of experts are skeptical about the safety of a nuclear station.”

He added: “Considering how much suffering the Semipalatinsk test site caused to our people, one can understand their suspicions. Therefore, we must continue public hearings, detailed, large-scale discussions on this issue. We need to make a final decision on important strategic issues by referendum. This was my promise to the people before the elections in 2019. The question of whether or not to build a nuclear power plant is a very important question for the future of our country. Therefore, I believe that it should be resolved by a national referendum. We will determine the exact deadline later.

The Semipalatinsk Test Site (also known as Semipalatinsk-21 or The Polygon) was the primary location for resting the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons. It is located on the steppe in northeast Kazakhstan (south of the valley of the Irtysh River. The scientific buildings for the test site were located around 150 km west of the town of Semipalatinsk, later renamed Semey, near the border of East Kazakhstan Region and Pavlodar Region. Most of the tests took place at various sites further to the west and the south, some as far away as the Karaganda Region.

Between 1949 and 1989 the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests there. Like the test sites used by other original nuclear weapons states – the US (Nevada), the UK (Australia, Christmas Island in the Pacific), and France (Algeria, French Polynesia), there was little concern for local populations and the full impact of radiation exposure was hidden for many years. According to estimates from Kazakh experts, more than a million people were exposed to fallout over the years.

Soviet scientists and members of the military whose job it was to conduct nuclear tests were housed in Kurchatov City – variously called Moscow-400, Semipalatinsk-21, End of the Line. Kurchatov was subsequently shortlisted as a possible site for the first NPP.

Since its closure in 1991, the Semipalatinsk Test Site has become the best-researched nuclear testing site in the world, and the only one in the world open to the public year-round. From 1996 to 2012, a secret joint operation of Kazakh, Russian, and American nuclear scientists and engineers secured the waste plutonium remaining at the site in the tunnels of the mountains. However, in the zones adjacent to the test site, there is still a high level of malignant growths of the thyroid and blood malignancies – hematological blastoma, leukosis, lymphoma and chronic leukemia – 10-15% higher than in other regions of Kazakhstan”, according to UN News.

When the test site was closed, Kazakhstan was faced the task of decontaminating the land and decommissioning the military-industrial complex that remained on the territory of the test site.

The National Nuclear Centre was therefore founded in Kurchatov City. Employees of the Centre conduct research and carried out ‘re-cultivation’, which requires the land to be ploughed in such a way that the contaminated topsoil was buried leaving uncontaminated soil on the surface.

Curbing nuclear proliferation became a key priority for Kazakhstan, given the impact of nuclear tests and it was one of the first CIS republics to join the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted 29August to be commemorated annually as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests in response to a proposal by Kazakhstan.

This history explains Tokayev’s decision to hold a referendum before pushing ahead with NPP construction plans. The Energy Ministry said it is necessary to "determine the concept of the issue to be put to the people's vote” adding that the date of the referendum would be announced later.

Image: Stronger than Death monument in Semei, erected in 2001 in memory of the victims of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan

Date: Wednesday, 06 September 2023
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