Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: Nuclear Station Safety Concerns

Astana and Moscow want to make money from foreign radioactive waste by building a new atomic plant in an earthquake zone.
By Venera Abisheva

The Kazak and Russian governments' decision to co-build a nuclear power station in an area of Kazakstan vulnerable to earthquakes has enraged environmentalists.


A Russian satellite photo has shown that the site of the proposed plant, Lake Balkhash in south-east Kazakstan, lies close to a rift in the earth's tectonic plates - and thus could be at the mercy of unpredictable seismic disturbances.


Opposition is now growing among local residents and activists from several non-governmental organisations, NGOs, who demand that legislation be introduced to ensure the move doesn't go ahead without a plebiscite.


"We should have a national referendum on the building of this power station," said Gulbakhram Jenis from the Tauelsizdik Karlygashtary (Signs of Independence) movement.


Local activists also point out that eastern Kazakstan region - which includes the former USSR nuclear site Semipalatinsk and Ust Kamenogorsk - has already been drenched in radiation following more than 450 nuclear tests, carried out by the Soviet government between 1949 and 1989.


Despite the outcry, leading members of the Kazak government, including President Nursultan Nazarbaev, have backed the Russian-led project. A formal decision was taken to go ahead with it during a meeting between Nazarbaev and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in February.


Kazak ecologists, who believe the station would have a terrible effect on the environment, are convinced the project is being driven by both nations' powerful atomic lobbies.


Rysbek Ibraev, who has carried out extensive research into the likely radiation threat from Balkhash, said the project was "nothing more than a plan by Russia's military and industrial complex to satisfy its own interests at the expense of victims in Kazakstan".


Ibraev and his supporters believe that developed countries, which face extensive lobbying from environmental groups opposed to the burial of radioactive waste, are looking for a suitable site to dump their dangerous nuclear material - and are prepared to pay as much as 1,000 US dollars per kilogramme for the privilege.


Russia, whose nuclear industry has been in financial turmoil since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, is at the forefront of nations looking to profit from this, according to Ibraev.


The Balkhash nuclear station will be needed to break down and incinerate the radioactive waste before it is buried on Kazak territory.


Meirjan Baituganov of the local ecology group Tabigat described Balkash as "another hazardous undertaking, which will give certain figures access to large financial profits".


The prospect of Kazakstan becoming a dumping ground for other nations' radioactive waste has alarmed many parliamentary deputies and opposition activists alike.


Deputy Gani Kasymov said that there was "direct pressure on parliament over this issue", while others criticised the authorities for lacking a proper atomic strategy.


Well-known human rights activist Evgeny Jovtis noted the dangers of radioactive waste, adding, "I don't see any special need for this station - there are no guarantees that it will be safe."


Kazak government agencies such as the national atomic centre and industrial groups argue that the project will bring much-needed cash from nuclear waste burial as well as another energy source for the former Soviet republic.


But when first mooted in the late Nineties, almost all economic ministers were against the Balkhash idea, asking why a new station was necessary when existing power plants were working at only 70 per cent of their capacity.


However, energy minister Vladimir Shkolnik insists construction is justified by Kazakstan's lack of power resources and has railed against critics of the proposed project, "Building the Balkhash atomic station should not be decided by public organisations," he said.


Valentina Sivryukova, president of the confederation of Kazak NGOs, told the media that too little information on the development had been made available. "There should be public hearings, and arguments from both sides so that people can understand what is really going on," she said.


Shaken Shyntaev, head of the republic centre of national medicine, said, "As a doctor, I know that radiation doesn't bring anything good. At the same time, if the safety standards are organised correctly, you cannot reject progress.


"But I fear that safety will be a secondary consideration - that they will build the station first and only then think about the people."


Venera Abisheva is the pseudonym for a journalist in Almaty