Kazakhstan plans to begin production of nuclear fuel assemblies this year, according to Deputy Minister of Energy Asset Magauov. He told parliament that Kazakhstan ranks second in the world in uranium reserves and first in terms of production, with an output of 21,600 tonnes of uranium in 2018. The aim now is to master the fuel cycle, local press reports noted on 17 May. “As part of this, a plant for the production of fuel assemblies is being built in Ust-Kamenogorsk together with Chinese partners,” he said. The facility is expected to be ready in 2019, he added.

The joint venture, Ulba-FA, was set up in 2015 by Kazakhstan’s Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP – 51%)), part of national atomic company Kazaktomprom, and Uranium Recourses under China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN – 49%). In 2016, construction of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant began as a joint ptoject involving Kazatomprom, CGN and France’s Areva.  The plant, which will use Areva fabrication technology and will be managed by Ulba-FA, will have a production capacity of 200t of fuel assemblies a year, with production scheduled to begin in 2020. It will procure enriched uranium either from China or Russia.

Since 2006, Kazakhstan has been considering the pros and cons of constructing a nuclear plant, and in 2014, Kazakhstan and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding for constructing a reactor, but a location for the site was never finalised.  Kazakhstan operated a small Soviet-built BN-350 fast reactor from 1973 to 1999 producing both power and desalinated water. But is is now undergoing decommissioning. Saltanat Rakhimbekova, who chairs Kazakhstan’s Coalition for Green Economy, believes that nuclear power is a key alternative energy source  of the future. About 91%  of Kazakhstan’s electricity comes from fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas and oil, with just 1% from renewable resources.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is hosting the world’s first  low-enriched uranium fuel bank run by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at its Ulba Metallurgical Plant. The facility, commissioned in 2017, can hold 90t of LEU, suitable for making fuel to feed a light water reactors, should normal supplies be interrupted. It is currently being tested before its official launch planned for August.