Kazakhstan national atomic company Kazatomprom, China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) and France’s Areva have announced the start of construction in Kazakhstan of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant. The plant will use Areva fabrication technology and will be managed by a joint venture between Kazatomprom and CGNPC. The plant will have a production capacity of 200t of fuel assemblies a year, with production scheduled to begin in 2020. It will be managed through Ulba-FA, a joint venture of Kazatomprom subsidiary Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) (51%) and CGNPC subsidiary CGN-URC (49%).

A contract signed by Areva NP and Ulba-FA provides a licence for fuel fabrication technology, engineering documentation, the supply of key production equipment and personnel training.

A joint statement said construction of the plant was "one of the breakthrough projects to be implemented under Kazatomprom's strategy, which focuses on the development of a vertically integrated fuel cycle company with advanced nuclear fuel fabrication facilities”. The companies said the new fuel fabrication plant is expected to have a "guaranteed market" for 20 years. Half of the KZT49bn ($147m) investment in the plant would be provided by the Chinese partner.

Kazakhstan, which accounted for 39% of global uranium output in 2015, already has the capability to manufacture fuel pellets at UMP's 2,000t-a-year facility. Kazatomprom has long had ambitions to move into fuel fabrication, and aims to supply up to one-third of the world fuel fabrication market by 2030 and signed an agreement with Areva to build a fabrication plant in 2011, following earlier agreements signed in 2010 and 2008.  It also has agreements with Russia and Japan.

UMP, established in 1949, has produced nuclear fuel pellets from Russian-enriched uranium since 1973 for use in Russian and Ukrainian VVER and RBMK reactors. UMP is majority owned by Kazatomprom, and 34% by Russia's TVEL. Other exports are to the USA and Asia. Since 1985 it has been able to handle reprocessed uranium, and has been making fuel pellets incorporating this for western reactors, supplied through TVEL.

In 2007 a technological assistance agreement was signed with Japan with the aim of moving towards selling its uranium as fabricated fuel or at least fuel pellets rather than just raw material. In 2010, UO2 powder for Japan was certified by Japan's Nuclear Fuel Industries, and fuel pellets for China by China National Nuclear Corporation's (CNNC's) China Jianzhong Nuclear Fuel.

Kazatomprom CEO Askar Zhumagaliyev said the plant was the result of long-term cooperation between Kazakhstan, China and France and was a strategic step towards production diversification. "Maintaining our uranium mining leadership, we are planning to offer to the market fuel for nuclear power plants of Kazakh origin, which will allow us to strengthen our position on the global nuclear market," he said. Areva CEO Philippe Knoche said Areva had started production of the necessary equipment for the project.