The Platform

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Many people are asking why Uzbekistan feels the pressing need to move ahead with a nuclear power plant.

The prospect of a nuclear power plant being built in Uzbekistan is causing disquiet. Uzbekistan’s announcement of its collaboration with Russia for a nuclear facility comes amid Russia’s international isolation due to its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The broader implications of Uzbekistan’s nuclear venture are far-reaching, potentially unsettling the ecological balance and economic stability across Central Asia and heightening existing geopolitical strains. The partnership with Russia risks drawing Uzbekistan into a tight web of “strategic dependence,” with potentially severe economic and political strings attached.

Russia’s stake in the game is non-negligible. With existing leverage in Central Asia through the export of labor, gas, and petrochemicals, Moscow could further solidify its hold by controlling nuclear fuel and maintenance services for the new plant.

The site chosen for this ambitious project is near Lake Tuzkan, in the vulnerable ecosystem of the Aydar-Arnasay lakes, alarmingly close to the border and Tashkent’s dense urban population. Seismologists and other experts are raising the alarm over the site selection, citing inadequate safety assessments in a region known for earthquakes with magnitudes that can exceed the precarious 6.0 threshold.

The ramifications of a potential nuclear incident in such a seismic region are daunting. Ecologist Timur Yeleusizov expresses a common fear—the nightmare scenario of water source contamination. “Who will be responsible for everything that happens in the event of accidents or leaks? After all, rivers and lakes, including underground streams, will also be contaminated with toxic substances,” he asks, underlining the risks to surface and underground water systems.

Uzbekistan, despite its regional energy riches, seems to be increasingly dependent on Russian energy, underscored by significant projects like the Pskem hydroelectric station and the controversial Rosatom-led nuclear initiative, with its hefty $11 billion tag. This is happening against the backdrop of significant economic sanctions levied against Russia, a point of consternation for observers.

Sustainability is another puzzle piece, with solutions like “dry cooling” towers on the table to mitigate water use from Lake Tuzkan, reflecting an acute awareness of regional water scarcity.

The safety of Rosatom’s VVER-1200 reactor model, touted as fail-safe post-Fukushima, is under scrutiny. Critics in European nuclear safety circles have identified possible design and safety lapses, noting a conspicuous absence of licensing in Western countries.

Activists like Akzam Akhmedbaev have voiced their opposition, but the public pushback has yet to gain substantial momentum.

In stark contrast to Kazakhstan’s storied nuclear expertise, Uzbekistan finds itself with a gap in nuclear proficiency, potentially necessitating Russian specialists to fill critical positions at the plant—a move that could further reinforce dependence.

Public engagement—or the lack thereof—stands in contrast to Kazakhstan’s democratic approach to considering a referendum. Uzbekistan’s leap into nuclear energy without substantial public discourse is a point of contention, especially given the stakes involved.

As the blueprint for the plant materializes, environmental alarm bells are ringing over the potential impacts on the already strained Aydar-Arnasay lakes. Yeleusizov points out that in a region where water is more precious than energy, reevaluation is imperative.

Uzbekistan’s nuclear ambition places it at a crossroads in Central Asia’s journey toward cohesion and peace. A Russian-supported nuclear presence in a world fraught with geopolitical discord is disconcerting, reflecting the urgent need for a measured approach to the region’s nuclear future, as echoed in Wilder Alejandro Sánchez’s thought-provoking article, “Does Uzbekistan Need a Nuclear Power Plant?” With global stability in the balance, the international community’s vigilance and engagement are crucial.

Theo Casablanca is a blogger who lives in Brasília.