Uzbekistan does not possess nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and is a member of the Central Asia Nuclear Weapons Free-Zone Treaty. That is the good news. However, the disturbing news is a 2018 agreement with Russia’s state atomic energy corporation Rosatom to build a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistani territory. While Tashkent needs additional power sources, the nuclear plant is a source of concern given the devastating consequences of potential accidents and the impression the global community will have about Moscow-Tashkent relations if this project proceeds.
A harsh Uzbek winter
Uzbekistan is in dire need of diversifying its energy sources and obtaining more reliable ones. The country’s difficult situation was highlighted again this winter, which was particularly harsh, snowy, and cold. The provision of gas and energy, including in the capital Tashkent has been less than reliable. “Almost nobody has been spared. Businesses, school buildings, and hospitals alike have found themselves periodically cut off from the power and gas grid,” explains Eurasianet. Tashkent has argued that mandatory blackouts are necessary to avoid the collapse of the power grid, which already happened as recent as January 2022.
The endless energy woes in cold Uzbekistan meant that some heads had to roll. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev fired the Tashkent mayor Jahongir Ortikhojaev and other officials for “failing to properly prepare for the winter.”
The status of the plant
In September 2018, an intergovernmental agreement was signed for the construction by Rosatom of two VVER-1200 reactors to be commissioned by 2028. An electricity generation strategy outlined by the Ministry of Energy in 2020 envisaged 15% of Uzbekistan’s electricity coming from nuclear by 2030. Last July 2022, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between Rosenergoatom, Rosatom Training Academy, and the Agency for Nuclear Power Engineering Development at the Ministry of Energy in Uzbekistan. The Central Asian country does not currently have nuclear power plants.
An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team of experts visited Uzbekistan this past 16-20 January to review the proposed nuclear power plant. One of the public recommendations to Tashkent by the Site and External Events Design Review Service (SEED) was “[identifying] and [selecting] feasible engineering measures to provide plant cooling and site protection from external events, with reference to the specific plant technology selected by the owner and the number of units.”
The 6 February 7.8 earthquake that devastated Turkey and Syria and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, caused by an earthquake and tsunami, confirms that it remains highly challenging, even in highly-developed nations, to provide complete protection against external events in conditions where the risks of natural disasters are high.
While energy diversification is mandatory, relying on nuclear energy is undesirable for several reasons. First of all, the Uzbek energy agency Uzatom has explained that “regarding concerns [over] spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, we inform that, [per the agreement between Tashkent and Moscow] handling spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste will be regulated by separate agreements and contracts. Where, in accordance with foreign experience in this field, radioactive waste is stored in the country where the waste was produced.” In other words, the future plant’s radioactive waste will be stored in Uzbekistan. In case of an accident, one obvious fear is that the radioactive material could enter Lake Tuzkan, causing damage to the environment and nearby densely populated centers, including Tashkent. This scenario is related to the aforementioned recommendation of the IAEA SEED mission to the government of Uzbekistan to protect the facility from “external events.”
While recommendations for increased protection may seem redundant, this is a valid warning as Tashkent must ensure that the local environment is not polluted due to the future plant’s activities. After all, in the event of a leak of radioactive material, large cities, industrial zones, rural areas, and water sources will inevitably fall within the radiation impact zone. This scenario could cause oncological and genetic diseases among the region’s population, and radioactive contamination of water facilities and groundwater, the primary sources of domestic drinking water supply for nearby settlements. Post-Soviet nations know well the consequences of radioactive fallout due to the 1986 Chernobyl accidents and decades of nuclear weapons testing in Central Asia during the Soviet Union.
Another fundamental problem with the proposed nuclear plant is its location, by Tuzkan Lake in the Jizzakh region, a zone of high seismic hazard, which is part of the Aydar-Arnasay lake system. The lake system is included in the Ramsar list of wetlands for the conservation of biodiversity (mainly the protection of waterfowl habitats). Such places are refugia for rich biodiversity, climate stabilizers, and often sources of fresh water; therefore, they must fall under state protection. A nearby nuclear power plant is the anthesis of protecting the natural environment.
A worst-case scenario in Uzbekistan’s future plant has become even more relevant given the devastating earthquake in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. Specifically, the location of the future plant is a seismic hazard. Strong seismic movements in the Jizzakh region were recorded in 2016 and 2018, ranging from 3.0 to 4.6 on the Richter scale. According to Volcano Discovery, seismic activities throughout 2023 are 1.9 to 3.1 so far.
Local activists and scholars have emphasized potential problems. In comments for The Third Pole, Farkhod Aminjonov, currently an Assistant Professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zayed University (UAE), expressed caution. A nuclear power plant has never been built in Uzbekistan, Aminjonov said; thus, the country is starting a significant endeavor with no experience. Nevertheless, so far, authorities in Tashkent remain confident in the current plans. One vital case study will be the Turkish nuclear power plant Akkuyu, which Rosatom is currently building in Mersin province. After the devastating earthquake, “aftershocks of about 3.0 magnitude were felt here at the Akkuyu NPP site, but our specialists did not detect any damage to building structures, cranes, equipment,” said CEO of JSC Akkuyu Nuclear Anastasia Zoteeva. However, more analyses of the structures are required.
Activists in neighboring Cyprus have renewed their opposition to the Turkish Akkuyu nuclear plant, citing concerns that a stronger earthquake in the seismic fault could affect the plant once it is operational and have devastating local and regional consequences. The activists are also concerned about the environmental impact of radioactive waste, which falls under the state’s responsibility, not Rosatom. The activists argue that there is still no method by which future nuclear power plants’ waste will be completely disposed of.
Finally, there are short and long-term geopolitical considerations. This joint nuclear project will strengthen relations between Rosatom with the Uzbek government. In the United States and Europe, this deal could give the perception that Tashkent and Moscow have become energy allies. This is not an ideal situation. In recent years, the Uzbek government has attempted to demonstrate that it is not (back) in Moscow’s sphere of influence: Uzbekistan has not joined the Eurasian Economic Union and has also rejected joining Moscow’s proposed “gas union” along with Russia and Kazakhstan. At a time when the Russian government continues to be internationally criticized and sanctioned due to the war in Ukraine, it is generally not advisable for Tashkent to increase ties with Moscow.
The legacy of Fukushima
Due to fears of a nuclear disaster like in Fukushima, the German Parliament amended the Act on the Peaceful Utilization of Atomic Energy and the Protection against its Hazards (the “Atomic Energy Act”) to abandon the use of nuclear energy in the country by 2022 (the amendment is known as the ‘Thirteenth Amendment.’ Despite pursuing parallel legal cases before the German Constitution Court and the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), the Swedish nuclear power plant company Vattenfall has attempted to change Berlin’s policy. Having emphasized the high-risk nature of nuclear power, the German Constitutional Court recognized that the state enjoys broad powers in determining which aspects of the common good to prioritize and how to protect public interests such as life and health.
The oral hearings of a case between Vattenfall and the German Government were made public, including when the Counsel for the German government presented the arguments to justify Berlin’s decision. The Counsel argued that Fukushima “happened in a high technology country [Japan]… a country that is regarded as one of the technology champions of the world. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.” The Counsel also compared Chernobyl and Fukushima, as the latter disaster “was different in another aspect. Beyond the tragedy, Japan was actually quite lucky because the wind was coming from the west, blowing most of the radioactive fallout onto the Pacific Ocean.” “What if the wind had blown the other way,” the fallout could have reached Tokyo, the Counsel noted. Moreover, given the location of the Uzbekistani nuclear plant, the winds could push radioactive fallout into neighboring states.
As a final consequence of the Fukushima disaster, the Chilean government gave up its plans for potential nuclear plants as the country is prone to experiencing earthquakes as well, including a strong quake in 2010.
The 2022/2023 winter was particularly harsh in Central Asia. Uzbekistan’s troubled energy industry and infrastructure worsened the cold winter, forcing authorities to mandate electricity blackouts. The agreement to build a nuclear power plant between Tashkent and Moscow is not new and Uzbekistan’s ongoing energy challenges will likely encourage the belief that nuclear energy will bring much-needed energy security to the Central Asian state.
While there is logic to that argument, and nuclear energy, in general, has become very developed and clean, Uzbekistan’s energy plans are concerning. Strategically, Uzbekistan has become dependent on Russia for natural gas, coal, and oil imports. The production of nuclear energy via Rosatom will further increase the dependence on this country. There is also the problem of the location of the proposed nuclear power plant near a vital lake system and within a seismic zone. In a worst-case scenario, if there are problems or accidents at the nuclear facilities or the radioactive waste disposal site, neighboring Lake Tuzkan, underground sources of drinking water, nearby settlements, and even neighboring states could be affected. Nuclear power can be helpful, and already is, but it is not always the preferred choice.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.