Astana aims to become world's top uranium producer

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Kazakhstan may have relinquished its arsenal of nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it is seeking to expand its role in a variety of atomic energy-related fields. The country hopes to outstrip rivals Canada and Australia next year to become the world’s biggest uranium producer.

Uranium production is set to exceed 9,000 tons this year and then rise by another third in 2009, putting Kazakhstan in the top spot for uranium output, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, head of Kazakhstan’s wholly state-owned nuclear giant, Kazatomprom, said at a July 22 news conference. The precise amount of uranium Kazatomprom hopes to produce next year is 12,826 tons, leaving Canada and Australia trailing unless there is a similarly rapid rise in output in those countries. Last year Canada produced 9,476 tons of uranium and Australia 8,611 tons against Kazakhstan’s 6,637 tons, according to figures from the World Nuclear Association (WNA). Kazatomprom cites its own estimates for its rivals’ uranium production for 2009, which it says are based on published data: 11,100 tons for Canada and 9,430 tons for Australia. By 2010 Kazakhstan hopes to be the clear world market leader, producing some 15,000 tons annually.

The figures would have looked unbelievable in 1997, when uranium production started recovering in Kazakhstan following a precipitous decline during the years immediately following the 1991 Soviet collapse. Just over a decade ago, Kazakhstan’s annual output stood at just 795 tons of uranium, according to WNA figures. From there it began a gradual increase, before soaring over the past few years.

The recovery was timely. After hitting a record low of $7 per pound in 2000, uranium prices climbed steadily, hitting an all-time high of $138 per pound last year. Demand has been partly driven by environmental and energy security concerns, with global moves away from polluting coal-fired power plants. That has brought nuclear power back into fashion. Prices have fallen since 2007, and the spot price currently stands at $64.50 per pound. Analysts say the price is driven by expectations of supply and demand moving into line.

Kazakhstan possesses at least 15 percent of world uranium resources, according to the WNA; Kazatomprom puts the figures at 19 percent. There are around 50 known deposits of uranium, mainly in southern Kazakhstan. Kazatomprom plans to start mining new deposits this year with an annual capacity of over 7,000 tons, building on the launch of extraction in June at West Mynkuduk, which has a capacity of 1,000 tons per year. There are further plans to start mining deposits with a capacity of some 2,500 tons in 2009.

The uranium industry in Kazakhstan was restricted in Soviet times to extraction and the production of fuel pellets, but, since it was set up in 1997, Kazatomprom – now the world’s fourth largest uranium company, according to the WNA, though the company claims to be the third biggest – has been expanding its scope, seeking to take part in all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle.

In a sign of the significance the state attaches to the atomic industry, nuclear cooperation featured on the agendas of visits by President Nursultan Nazarbayev earlier this year to Japan and France, and on that of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Astana in May. During Nazarbayev’s visit to Paris in June, Kazatomprom reached a deal with Areva, a French conglomerate, that will see the KATCO joint venture more than double uranium output to 4,000 tons per year, and set up a new joint venture to manufacture nuclear fuel assemblies at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in the city of Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk). Kazatomprom and Canada’s Cameco in June launched the Ulba Conversion joint venture at that plant. It is set to produce 12,000 tons per year of uranium hexafluoride, which is used in the uranium enrichment process.

Nazarbayev’s visit to Tokyo, also in June, led to Kazatomprom signing a memorandum on cooperation with Toshiba which includes plans to set up new ventures, including enterprises that will jointly extract precious metals. The Kazakh nuclear giant had already purchased 10 percent of Westinghouse Electric Corp. from Toshiba last year, and is working with it on a project, to be completed in 2011-2012, to produce fuel assemblies at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant for supply to emerging markets. Westinghouse is a major world supplier of nuclear reactors, leading Dzhakishev to suggest last year that every third reactor in the world would be working on fuel from Kazakhstan by 2030. Westinghouse has a $5 billion contract to supply reactors to China, which is seeking to almost double the share of nuclear energy in its power balance to 4 percent. Beijing hopes that the expansion of nuclear energy in the country will reduce pollution.

Kazatomprom also has growing nuclear cooperation with China, last year signing an agreement with the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC) which will make Kazakhstan the company’s largest supplier of uranium and nuclear fuel. It also signed a trilateral deal in 2007 with CGNPC and the China National Nuclear Corp. to jointly mine uranium deposits in Kazakhstan.

Kazatomprom has a long tradition of nuclear cooperation with Russia, and recent deals include an agreement to set up a joint uranium enrichment center at existing facilities in the Siberian city of Angarsk. The first output from the venture, set up in 2006, is expected in 2011. Kazakhstan’s nuclear giant has also been a key partner as Russia seeks to start up a multilateral enrichment project in Angarsk, known as the International Uranium Enrichment Center. Kazatomprom holds a 10 percent stake in that venture, which Russia has invited other countries to join. Russia has also expressed an interest in involvement in Kazakhstan’s plans to build a new atomic power plant at Aktau on the Caspian Sea, which is also the location of a decommissioned Soviet-era nuclear power plant.

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