Kazakhstan Debates Handling Radioactive Waste, Building Nuclear Power Plant

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Government weighs the merits of importing foreign low-level radiation waste and bulding a new nuclear power plant against the potential environmental dangers

WASHINGTON, DC, Feb. 26 - The issues of how to get rid of the radioactive waste and whether to build a new nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan were at the heart of intense public debates these days, prompted in part by the announcement last week that Kazakhstan and Russia may jointly build such a plant.

At the Feb. 24 Parliament session and the Feb. 25 Government meeting, Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik argued in favor of both importing foreign low-level radioactive waste and using the revenues to pay for the clean-up, and the construction of a new nuclear plant to satisfy the projected sky-rocketing growth in demand for cheap electricity.

"At the current annual rate of 440 million tenge ($1=T152.6 as of Feb. 26), we will be able to get rid of the waste in [as little as] 300 years," Shkolnik said at the Cabinet session, arguing for the need to spend as much as $1.154 billion to clean up the waste in 10 years time. The huge amounts of radioactive waste accumulated in Kazakhstan both through industrial processes and the 40 years of nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk.

Shkolnik said the money could be earned by importing law-radiation waste. His stance seemed to gain support among the ministers for health, finance, industry and environment, Khabar TV reported. The ministers argued that with existing technologies such operations can be both safe and beneficial to ridding Kazakhstan of its own radioactive waste and improving healthcare, particularly in the Semipalatinsk area.

Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov threw a note of caution and said the government needs "to focus not only on the financial feasibility of importing low-and medium-level radioactive waste."

"Attention should also be paid to environmental safety and issues related to the country's reputation," he noted, adding that Kazakhstan itself may potentially afford to spend $1 billion for these purposes during the next decade. He said there's a need to conduct thorough expertise, together with the international experts, to assess its requirements and capabilities before making a determination. Currently, the members of Parliament are increasingly questioning the merits of potential importation of foreign radioactive waste.

The debates on the nuclear power plant were no less sharp in the Parliament, where legislators, mindful of Chernobyl and Semipalatinsk legacies, questioned the safety and the need for such a plant, while Shkolnik said Kazakhstan needed it for a variety of reasons.

"Kazakhstan needs nuclear plant from the environmental standpoint, from the point of its social development, its existing raw material and scientific potential," Shkolnik said in the Parliament. He was referring to ecologically cleaner operations of nuclear plants compared to coal-fired ones, expected growth in electricity demand by "dozens of times over the 10 years" in Kazakhstan, as well as its world's largest uranium reserves and an existing nuclear fuel producing plant.

He said the government hasn't made the final decision on how to proceed with this issue, and only after that will it likely "hold an international tender for the construction of the plant."

Karatai Turysov, chairman of the Majilis Economy Committee, suggested the people are not in for of such proposals. "Why are they against it? Because they do not see that the government is doing enough to ensure nuclear safety."

After talks with President Nazarbayev in Moscow last week, Russia's President Putin announced the two countries would work jointly to build a nuclear power plant near Lake Balkhash in southeastern Kazakhstan. Shkolnik said no formal agreement has been signed.

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