Source INS Contributors

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Kazakhstan is set to hold a referendum on nuclear energy as it seeks to diversify its energy needs away from fossil fuels and achieve its emissions reduction targets President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced during a state-of-the-nation address.

"The development of nuclear power is a particularly important economic and political issue. There are different opinions on the feasibility of building a nuclear power plant in our country. On the one hand, Kazakhstan, as the world's largest uranium producer, should have its own nuclear generation. Some experts support the idea of building plants with small reactors," he said.

Tokayev also acknowledged the apprehension of his countrymen on the issue given the tragic legacy of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and said this question would be put to the people.

"Public hearings and comprehensive discussions on this issue should continue. In my 2019 election platform, I promised that decisions on the most important strategic issues would be made through referendums. The decision to construct or refrain from building a nuclear power plant is a highly significant issue that greatly impacts the future of our country. Therefore, I propose to submit it to a national referendum. Specific dates will be determined later," he said.

Tokayev also pledged to address a number of other challenges that the Central Asian country is grappling with including the issue of water availability and quality remains critical. Given the growth of population and the economy by 2040, the water deficit in Kazakhstan may reach 12-15 billion cubic meters.

He added that Kazakhstan will also work towards securing more green financing to meet its Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) commitments:

"ESG principles have become standard practice for financial organizations in a short period of time. In this regard, the Astana International Financial Centre should become the main platform for attracting green funding in our region.

Separately, Kazakhstan Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP), which has been designated as the owner/operator of the future plant, began preparing a feasibility study in 2018 to justify the need for nuclear power, the choice of the location for plant construction and to review the plant's projected power output.

The country's Ministry of Energy said that, "together with the relevant state bodies, members of Parliament, experts in this field and public activists", it will soon "thoroughly review all issues of the implementation of the President's order, work out other aspects and inform the public about these works".

The ministry also said it is necessary to "determine the concept of the issue to be put to the people's vote". It said the date of the referendum would be announced later.

"In my opinion, the referendum will first of all be aimed at the citizens of Kazakhstan expressing their thoughts about the need for the development of technologies in this field, and the government will propose solutions suitable for the society," said Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliyev.

Last month, the Ministry of Energy issued an update on progress towards the construction of Kazakhstan's first nuclear power plant, confirming the selection of Ulken in the Zhambyl district of Almaty region as the most suitable area for the plant for which four potential suppliers had been shortlisted.

Under Kazakhstan's nuclear energy law, construction of a nuclear plant requires local agreement. The law requires public discussions, which aim to determine the attitude of local people to the idea of building a nuclear power plant in their territory. 
Kazakhstan's Ecological Code requires public hearings to evaluate the project documentation on the construction of the nuclear power plant. The akimat, or local government, of the Almaty region has now begun these public discussions, the ministry said.

"In the local discussions, the residents supported the development of nuclear energy in the region and said that the project will be an impetus for the social and economic development of the region," the ministry said.

Four foreign potential suppliers of nuclear technology are being considered by Kazakhstan, the ministry said in January. These are EDF of France, China National Nuclear Corporation, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power and Rosatom of Russia.

A Russian-designed BN-350 sodium-cooled fast reactor operated near Aktau in Kazakhstan for 26 years until 1999, generating electricity and desalinating water. Kazakhstan currently operates research reactors as well as several other nuclear installations related to the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium mining.