Uranium was discovered just over 200 years ago in 1789, and today, it’s among the world’s most important energy sources.
Before 1990 the USSR was the biggest uranium producer in the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been the world’s leading uranium producer since 2009. The country mined more uranium than Canada, Australia, and Namibia combined in 2019, making up 42% of global production.
At the same time, uranium is considered one of the most dangerous metals on Earth. So what should Kazakhstanis do - be proud or fearful? Let's find out together.
What is uranium used for?
To power commercial nuclear reactors that produce electricity and to produce isotopes used for medical, industrial, and defense purposes around the world.
What does Kazakhstan do with its uranium?
14% of the world's uranium reserves are located in Kazakhstan. The country exports uranium to China, South and East Asia, Europe, North and South America. However, Kazakhstan does not sell all of its uranium. The Ulba Metallurgical Plant near Ust-Kamenogorsk produces uranium powders and pellets for China's nuclear power plants. In Soviet times, this facility was used to make items for atomic bombs.
How dangerous is uranium?
External exposure to uranium is not as dangerous as exposure to other radioactive elements because the human skin will block the radiation. Ingestion of high concentrations of uranium, however, can cause severe health effects, such as cancer of the bones or liver. Inhaling large concentrations of uranium can cause lung cancer.
In Kazakhstan uranium is extracted by the underground in-situ leaching method, which is claimed to be safe for humans and the environment. Workers of uranium mines in Kazakhstan wear special protective clothes, drink milk, have a special diet and health insurance.
Are nuclear and radiological accidents possible?
Nuclear accidents are ruled out at natural uranium mining and processing enterprises, but radiation accidents are possible. Such accidents occur if the radiation source is not controlled. However, according to experts from the Ministry of Energy, the risk is minimal if safety procedures are followed at the enterprises.
Will Kazakhstan build its own nuclear power plant?
Kazakhstan’s President recently said that the decades-long period of indecision about nuclear power is over. According to him, despite widespread fears over this issue in the country that was once a testing ground for the Soviet nuclear program, Kazakhstan has no other options.
Acknowledging that "we are already experiencing the first signs of a power shortage in Kazakhstan," - partially because of the rapid growth of energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining this year - Tokayev said that Kazakhstan will at some point have to address the development of a nuclear power plant.