Race Is on for Kazakh Uranium

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"As global nuclear energy demand grows, countries with uranium reserves are poised to reap enormous economic and political dividends."

As global nuclear energy demand grows, countries possessing uranium reserves are poised to reap enormous economic and political dividends. Yet the gains may come with costs as global rivalry accelerates among major powers. Kazakhstan, possessing some of the world's largest uranium deposits, is increasingly facing competition from Russia, Japan and China, as it aims to become a major global supplier of nuclear fuel and reactors.

In 2009, Kazakhstan became the world's largest producer of uranium. It now aims to expand its uranium production to 30,000 tons by 2018 from the 18,000 tons planned to be produced in 2010. There are 21 uranium deposits being developed in the country today. Kazakhstan is interested in profiting from its energy exports to diverse suppliers and strengthening its geopolitical position.

Kazakhstan relies on Russia, which enjoys 45% of the global uranium enrichment capacity, for uranium enrichment. However, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, former executive of the Kazakh nuclear state company Kazatomprom, cautions against Kazakhstan's overall cooperation with Russia. Kazakhstan has tried to avoid this by collaborating with Japan and China. Kazakh-Chinese cooperation is especially notable. In 2011, the two sides agreed on the supply of 55,000 tons of uranium over the next 10 years. In this light, security risks associated with a struggle by major powers over access to Kazakh uranium resources are not inconceivable, making it imperative for Kazakhstan not to overplay its external balancing strategy.

Kazakhstan's ambitions to supply nuclear power and fuel at home and abroad already raise environmental, health and proliferation. Many people still suffer from more than 450 nuclear weapons tests conducted in the country during the Soviet era.

Mitigating these risks is a major challenge for Kazakhstan and others as the world confronts the surge in nuclear energy demand and the struggle over the precious uranium resources.

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