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U.S.- central Asian national interests: Kazakhstan's Atomic past and nuclear future.


The U.S., its international partners, and the Kazakh government are cooperating to build a cleaner and more efficient atomic energy sector in Kazakhstan. Environmental pressures, such as water scarcity in Central Asia, are exacerbated through crude atomic energy production. Through improved atomic research it is hoped that the energy production sector can manufacture cleaner and more efficient nuclear energy. Environmentally focused atomic joint ventures such as the European Union's (EU) project at Myrrha and the U.S. project at Alatau are examples of research and production improvements for Kazakhstan. In the near term, the best interests of the U.S. are for it to continue to work with its partners to grow Kazakhstan's economic and atomic energy sectors through environmentally sound initiatives that do not poison and further destabilize Central Asia.

Currently, Kazakhstan accounts for fifteen percent of the earth's known potential uranium resources. In 2011 it produced approximately 20,000 tons of uranium which accounted for about thirty-five percent of the world's production. By aggressively capitalizing on its vast resources Kazakhstan is now the world's leading producer of the uranium. (1) However, the country's President-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev leads an authoritarian kleptocracy which maintains most of the nation's wealth for itself. (2) Consequently, U.S.-Kazakh diplomatic relations have been strained over the perceptions and realities of democracy levels and the nature of economic opportunities that should, will, and do exist between the two nations.

In order to understand the current state of the uranium extraction sector it is important to briefly examine the evolution of mining in Kazakhstan. Historically, hard rock deposit uranium exploration under the former Soviet Union commenced in modern day Kazakhstan in 1948. As of today reports indicate that there are 50 known uranium deposits in six of the country's fourteen provinces (See map below). (3) In 1970 tests of sedimentary rock known as


[MAP OMITTED] 'In Situ Leach' (ISL) mining were successful, which led to further exploration. By the year 2000 ISL had almost completely replaced Kazakhstan's original hard rock deposit uranium mining production method. ( 4)

Strategic Impact of Kazakhstan's Uranium Wealth

In 2011, forty-five percent of the world's uranium was mined using ISL methods.5 The U.S. considers ISL as the most cost effective and environmentally acceptable form of uranium mining and most global uranium mining is now done through these methods. (6) Technically, ISL is a process that uses a grid of injection and production wells. The wells employ sulfuric acid circulated through the aquifer and into the ore bed at 300 to 1,000 feet below the surface to dissolve the uranium. The uranium-bearing water solution is pumped to the surface processing facility which removes the uranium.

Concerns over environmental damage, especially to ground water that drains into what is left of the Aral Sea, forced the industry to improve techniques for ISL mining. Best practices, especially by the Australians, have evolved to the point that ISL is a controllable, safe, and environmentally benign method of mining. Technically, there are two different water solutions used for ISL mining which are determined by the groundwater and the local geology. In either case, the leaching solution has a pH of 2.5 to 3.0 which is approximately the same as vinegar. (7) A low pH is a very good thing as it will not contribute to the environmental damage and agricultural mismanagement that has been the case in the five Central Asian nations. Fortunately, due to the low capital costs relative to conventional mining, ISL promises to remain Kazatomprom's only method of mining uranium deposits and will aid in preserving the fragile aquifer.


Kazatomprom was established by the government in 1997 as Kazakhstan's state owned corporation for mining uranium. It owns all but one of the nation's operational uranium mines. It also controls all uranium exploration and mining as well as other nuclear activities, including imports and exports of nuclear materials. In 2008 Kazatomprom announced that its goal was to supply thirty percent of the globe's uranium by 2015. The break-down by sector is as follows: twelve percent of the planet's uranium conversion through joint ventures; six percent of the earth's total enrichment market; and thirty percent of the total nuclear fuel fabrication market. (8)

Kazatomprom announced a cap on production of uranium at 20,000 tons per year in October 2011, assumedly to control global uranium prices. (9) The company has also established important strategic partnerships with Russia, the EU, Japan, the U.S., and the international nuclear company Westinghouse. It should be noted that France and Canada are also involved in mining uranium in Kazakhstan and are moving forward in other aspects of the enrichment of the fuel cycle. (10)

In July 2006 Russia and Kazakhstan through Kazatomprom completed three joint nuclear agreements in excess of $10 billion (USD) for uranium production, enrichment, and new nuclear reactors. Also, since 2006 Kazatomprom and the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group Holdings (CGNPC) have signed several strategic cooperation agreements on uranium supply, fuel fabrication, and mining joint ventures for China's nuclear power industry. This is a significant strategic move for both companies as Kazatomprom could become the main uranium and nuclear fuel supplier to CGNPC and potential Chinese reactor construction. A CGNPC subsidiary, Sino-Kazakhstan Uranium Resources Investment Company, is reportedly planning to invest in two new Kazakh uranium mines as part of a joint venture. ( 11)

In order for Kazakhstan to maintain its control of the international pricing of uranium, it must control production. A strategic cooperative agreement between China and Kazatomprom estimates that only 20 percent (approximately 5,000 tons) of its current annual uranium output goes to China. However, without a national mining and enrichment increase (which would affect the global pricing) China's annual projected uranium demands of 25,000 tons could mean that 100 percent of Kazakhstan's uranium could go exclusively to China by 2015. (12)

Kazatomprom signed agreements in 2009 with CGNPC and India's Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL) for the establishment of a corporation for the construction of nuclear power plants in China, India, and Kazakhstan. Further, in April 2010 Kazakhstan signed an agreement for nuclear power cooperation with the Republic of South Korea. In addition to these international agreements, Kazakhstan, the U.S., and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) have signed nuclear energy cooperation agreements. (13)


Kazatomprom owns ten percent of the Westinghouse Corporation which provides the company with a solid position in the mainstream fuel fabrication industry. Since 2008 Japanese companies such as Toshiba, Toyota, and Marubeni have invested in a nuclear energy institute in Kazakhstan as a research and development facility for rare earth metals exploration, the fuel life-cycle, improvements in reactor technology, and the reduction in hazardous pollution. (14)

Domestic Problems and Regional Concerns

One of Kazakhstan's domestic success stories since its departure from the Soviet era includes the decommissioning of the BN-350 nuclear reactor at Shevchenko. According to the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, the BN-350 reactor was used by the Soviet Union to produce plutonium for weapons. The used fuel products, 1,000 tons of radioactive sodium, had been stored at that site since the facility closed in 1992. In 1997, the U.S. and Kazakh governments agreed to an intergovernmental project to improve safety and security for the plutonium bearing spent fuel. By late 2001, all of this material had been inventoried and put under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, thereby making the fuel elements far more difficult to steal. ( 15)

However, there are domestic problems and regional concerns for Kazakhstan's aggressive future plans for uranium production. National ambitions are aided by the reality that Kazatomprom ignores ground water pollution concerns and regulatory hurdles more easily than in most western countries. Mine exploration and resource exploitation are two to three times more cost effective than other ISL competitors such as the U.S. and Australia because of lax regulation. (16)

Further, Kazakhstan has an ominous central Asian legacy of radioactive wastes from uranium mining, nuclear weapons testing, nuclear reactors, industrial issues, coal mining, and oilfields. During the Soviet era, Kazakhstan hosted 470 nuclear weapons tests which left it with significant environmental damage. Further modern environmental challenges exist, such as with ISL uranium production. ISL requires large quantities of sulfuric acid which is used to break down the carbonates from the ore, and if not managed/reclaimed carefully, can contaminate ground water with disastrous results for all of its downstream neighbors. (17)

Following independence in 1991 the country made three significant atomic decisions. First, it became a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; secondly it became a non-nuclear weapons state by destroying or transferring its 1,300 nuclear warheads; and thirdly the National Nuclear Center (NNC) was established by President Nazarbayev in 1992. Located in the town of Kurchatov, the NNC addresses historic and potential environmental damage and destruction. It employs 2,700 research analysts and scientists who are responsible for research into peaceful uses of nuclear energy, improvements in radiation safety, and the management of all of Kazakhstan's nuclear research reactors. The NNC is also solely responsible for the evaluation of the effects of many years' worth of nuclear tests at the highly contaminated former Semipalatinsk 21 (S-21) Test Site. (18)

The NNC signed a thirteen year international agreement in October of 2010 with the StudieCentrum voor Kernenergie Centre d'Etude de l'Energie Nucleaire (SCK-CEN), or as it is known in English, the Belgian Nuclear Research Center. The purpose of this nuclear energy research collaboration is focused on the multifaceted Belgian Myrrha Project. Technically, Myrrha is a multifunctional lead-bismuth-cooled subcritical reactor with an accelerator-driven system for the incineration of radioactive waste. In addition to incineration, the Myrrha project will perform research and radioisotope production. Primarily funded by the EU, it is currently projected to ready to commence operations in 2023. ( 19)

The NNC headquarters, located at Kurchatov, hosts the Institute of Atomic Energy which currently operates two research reactors at S-21 but owned by NNC. (20) Another active reactor, also owned by NNC, is in Alatau which is a short distance south of the large metropolitan area of Almaty. (21) Alatau is operated by the Institute of Nuclear Physics and produces radioisotopes. In a combined effort between the Kazakh government, the IAEA and the NNSA the facility at Alatau 'down blends' enriched uranium which is then sold for export use as reactor fuel, primarily to Russia. (22)

The future of a successful Kazakh atomic energy sector means that the scientific projects and advancements as mentioned above must be sustained. Environmental destruction through careless pollution and free-market exploitation has been unfortunate. Kazakhs and a cooperative international community must continue to work together to find better environmental procedures to achieve national economic goals or Kazakhstan will poison its environmental and economic futures.

Initiatives for the Future

Economically, Kazakhstan ranked fifty-third in the world in 2012 with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $230B (USD). Extractive metal revenues (to include uranium) comprised thirteen percent of the nation's economy. According to its projected increase in uranium extraction and nuclear energy production, Kazakhstan should see a significant increase in GDP by 2020. (23) It is still too early to determine whether the government will be willing or able to export atomically produced electricity to the Eurasian neighborhood and more importantly, at what price.

It is clear that a spirit of cooperation will be necessary if Kazakhstan is to achieve its impressive eco nomic goals in an environmentally safe manner by 2020. Kazakhstan will have to address its significant financial, construction and production challenges. Nation-wide infrastructure construction of nuclear power plants, power transmission lines, and water management capabilities with sufficient capacity all require significant external investment, experience, and expertise. But this means that there will have to be tradeoffs with foreign governments and the private sector which will demand certain controls and guarantees prior to deeper investment.

Joint ventures with capital investing partners such as Russia, the EU, Japan, India, China, and the U.S. are anticipated to ease the financial burdens of Kazakhstan's rise as the world's dominant atomic energy partner. Only time will tell if the tradeoffs were worth the costs of the government's plans for nuclear power through 2030. Currently the plan includes two large light-water reactors to be built by Russia's Atomstroyexport near Lake Balkhash in the south and near Aktau in the west near the Caspian Sea. (24)

According to the plan, the share of domestic nuclear electricity would comprise 4.5 percent of demand, which by 2030 is projected to be 150 billion kWh. (25) Aktau still possesses infrastructure and experienced personnel remaining from the BN-350 reactor which the Soviets operated there from 1973 to 1999. (26) Both projects have passed environmental review and a 2010 financial feasibility study demonstrated that with an electricity price of $0.05 (USD) per kWh, the plants would be paid off in 12 years. Kazatomprom's proposal to the government for the power plants was accepted in March 2013 and Atomstroyexport expects to complete the initial pair of plants by 2017. (27)

Completion of the power plants and the successful production of nuclear energy in the next four to five years mean that the U.S. needs to remain actively engaged with Kazakhstan, even if the Russian government disagrees. Russia has opposed the development of any form of a Central Asian union, preferring instead to conduct bilateral negotiations with each of the five former Soviet Republics. (28) An increase in U.S. scientific projects and Track II style diplomacy between scholarly communities will also continue to help the heads of state maintain better perspectives and understandings.(29)


The U.S. near term energy strategy for Kazakhstan through 2020 will remain complex due to the political delicacies that surround Kazakh President Nazarbayev, his regime, and its relationship with Russia. Therefore it will be important for the politicians of both countries to maintain a distinct separation between the scientific necessities and the diplomatic concerns over democratic institutions in Kazakhstan. Only through working together can the international community help build a cleaner Kazakh energy sector and reduce contamination through projects like those at Myrrha and Alatau. In the near term, the strategic best interests of the U.S. are for it to continue to work with its partners to grow Kazakhstan's economic stability through an environmentally sound enlargement of its atomic energy sector that does not poison and further destabilize Central Asia.


(1.) U.S. Energy Information Administration, September 18, 2012. At

(2.) Shelina Janmohamed, "The Nazarbayev Kleptocracy's Grip on Kazakhstan," The Crescent, September 2009. At

(3.) World Nuclear Association, March 2013. At

(4.) World Nuclear Association, June 2012. At

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) World Nuclear Association, March 2013.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Kazatomprom National Atomic Company, March 20, 2013. At

(12.) Marc Humphries, Rare Earth Elements:The Global Supply Chain (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2012), 8.

(13.) World Nuclear Association, March 2013.

(14.) Humphries, 23.

(15.) Philipp C. Bleek, "U.S. Finishes Packaging Kazakh Plutonium, Reviews Next Step," Arms Control Association, August 2001. At

(16.) World Nuclear Association, June 2012.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) European Commission, "Euratom FP7 Research &Training Projects," Volume 2 (Brussels, 2010), 8. At http://www.enen-assoc. org/data/document/euratom-fp7-vol-2.pdf.

(20.) World Nuclear Association, March 2013.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) World Nuclear Association, May 2012. At

(24.) Clare Nuttall, "Kazakhstan to Decide on Nuclear Power Plant in 2012," businessneweurope, 22 August 2012. At in_2012.

(25.) World Nuclear Association, March 2013.

(26.) Ibid.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Adam N. Stulberg, Well-Oiled Diplomacy: Strategic Manipulation and Russia's Energy Statecraft in Eurasia (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 184.

(29.) Dalia Dassa Kaye, Talking to the Enemy: Track Two Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia (Washington, D.C.: RAND Corporation, 2007).

COL Daniel M. Frickenschmidt is currently serving as the Assistant Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, Arizona. His recent assignments include Commander of the Abu Risha Federal Police Transition Team in al Anbar, Iraq; G2, 35>th Infantry Division; and NGB J2 Intelligence Community Inter-Agency Liaison. COL Frickenschmidt is a graduate of the Joint Forces Staff College and the National War College. He holds a Master of Science in National Security Strategy and a Master of Arts in Historical Theology.

Editor's Note: As the U.S. Army prepares to build its new Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF) Program, it is important for Military Intelligence (MI) professionals to build a baseline of knowledge on various aspects of country-specific and regional issues that impact U.S. national interests and potential missions or conditions for Army Leaders who will engage in the RAF Program.

In this first RAF illustrative case study, Colonel Frickenschmidt examined how U.S. national interests in Central Asia, specifically Kazakhstan, should remain focused on atomic energy security and cooperation. Kazakhstan produces approximately 20,000 tons of uranium accounting for about thirty-five percent of the world's production. The article also addresses environmental concerns regarding pre-existent nuclear contamination and potable water issues which are key for U.S. Army Leaders who will be conducting military-to-military exchanges in Kazakhstan in the future.

It is hoped that articles such as this one and future submissions to MIPB will shape the MI community as it considers alternative global trends and international military operations for future generations of Army Leaders.
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Author:Frickenschmidt, Daniel M.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Geographic Code:9KAZA
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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