The Central Asian Country Powering the World’s Nuclear Needs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the most useful treasures come from the most unexpected places.
List everything you know about Kazakhstan. Chances are, the raucous 2006 comedy Borat is somewhere near the top. Infamously casting the former Soviet republic as a hopeless backwater, the film enraged Kazakh officials and sparked some unsavory — not to mention untrue — stereotypes. In reality, the country has a thing or two to offer. Try, for instance, the raw material for more than one-third of our nuclear fuel. That’s because:
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium.
In 2016, it provided 39 percent of the global supply, according to the World Nuclear Association. So significant is its role in uranium markets that state-run producer KazAtomProm recently announced it will cut supplies by 20 percent over the next several years just to boost sagging global prices for the commodity. “A few years ago, they were well behind Canada and Australia, which had been the largest producers,” says Matthew Bunn, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “Now, they’ve surged ahead.”
If you’re wondering what a vast Central Asian country is doing with all that uranium, it turns out geography has much do with it. Kazakhstan, once home to the Soviet Union’s primary test site for nuclear weapons, sits on about 12 percent of the planet’s reserves, most of which are relatively easy — and therefore inexpensive — to mine. “Compared to other parts of the world, the prospects there are very attractive because of the cost standpoint,” says Nicolas Carter, executive vice president of nuclear fuel consultancy UxC. “That’s what’s attracted a lot of Western investors.” And they’ve come in droves, snapping up considerable stakes in around a dozen of Kazakhstan’s 17 mines.
You might be forgiven for associating uranium with nuclear weaponry, especially in countries many probably would be hard-pressed to find on a map. After all, major international efforts have long been aimed at blocking Iran and North Korea from enriching the mineral to power their dubious nuclear needs. Kazakhstan isn’t a military dictatorship hell-bent on sticking it to the West, but it’s not exactly an exemplary democracy either. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in power for nearly three decades, often faces criticism for overseeing a stifling political system with few opportunities for competition.
So should you be worried? In short, no. For one, Kazakhstan isn’t able to enrich its own uranium, the first step in building a nuclear arsenal. Isolating uranium-235, which is what powers reactors and makes atom bombs, from the naturally mined uranium-238 ore is no simple task, requiring both advanced technology and expertise available in neighboring Russia, for example, but not at home. But perhaps more importantly, Kazakhstan has openly committed itself to peaceful nonproliferation: Last summer, the International Atomic Agency opened a “uranium bank” on Kazakh soil aimed at discouraging rogue enrichment programs by storing low-enriched uranium there for civilian use.
Plus, Bunn adds, Kazakhstan’s mining industry has long since proven itself as aboveboard, and its commodity is a key part of the global market. “It’s commercially traded, it poses virtually no risk to anybody,” he says, “and it’s almost not related to the Iran story and the North Korea story.” In other words: No need to power down.