The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

There are obvious concerns with Uzbekistan partnering with Russia to construct a nuclear power plant.

When Uzbekistan announced its partnership with Russia to build a nuclear power plant, the news was heralded in Moscow as a “project of the century,” promising the Central Asian nation a path to energy independence. But for Western Europe and the United States, the joint venture has stirred a cauldron of unease, threatening to mar the investment climate, and planting an internal political landmine within Uzbekistan’s already volatile landscape.

Contrary to Moscow’s triumphant narrative, Western analysts are scrutinizing the potential repercussions that could haunt Uzbekistan post-implementation. There’s a fundamental issue at hand: Tashkent’s nuclear initiative is bereft of homegrown expertise. By placing the country’s nuclear future solely in Russia’s grasp, Uzbekistan risks ensnaring itself in a form of energy servitude. How can one speak of energy independence when the strategic controls of such a pivotal infrastructure will reside in foreign hands?

Equally concerning is the domestic unrest simmering beneath the surface. A recent study by the Institute of Strategic and Interregional Studies of Uzbekistan reveals a swelling tide of anti-nuclear sentiment. The government’s unilateral decision to forge ahead without public consent—or even a referendum—has sown seeds of distrust among its citizens. Compounding these fears are ecological concerns, particularly the impact on the Aidar-Arnasay lake system, which includes Lake Tuzkan, slated to be the cooling source for the plant’s reactors.

Experts have cast doubts on the viability of using Tuzkan as a water supply. A decline in water levels and the lake’s aggressive chemical composition pose challenges, making it less than ideal for plant operations. From its inception, the project’s safety seems compromised, a precarious endeavor in a region known for its seismic activity. Should Uzbekistan continue to ignore these red flags, it risks amplifying environmental threats already prevalent in the region.

Uzbekistan’s National Security Concept underscores the formation of a Central Asian system of environmental security as a paramount goal. Yet, the current environmental landscape tells a different story. Uzbekistan’s upper Syrdarya River basin, on its eastern border with Kyrgyzstan, is under increasing ecological strain, exacerbated by dumps of off-balance uranium ores in the vicinity of Mailuu-Suu village. Runoffs from landslides have exposed hazardous waste, contaminating local rivers, and affecting the Fergana Valley. Add to this already toxic mix the pollution of the Amu Darya by agricultural and oil waste from Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and the situation becomes dire.

Finally, a more insidious peril looms: the risk of the nuclear facility becoming a prime target for terrorists. Uzbekistan’s geopolitical positioning, adjacent to a perennially embattled Afghanistan and rife with internal disturbances—like those in the Fergana Valley—renders this risk non-negligible. The potential for nuclear emergencies, coupled with ongoing regional conflicts, calls into question the government’s ability to secure the plant, let alone maintain a precarious status quo.

Uzbekistan’s nuclear venture is fraught with peril, economically, politically, and environmentally. As the nation grapples with the complexities of this ambitious project, it must weigh the ephemeral allure of energy independence against the indelible risks that could indubitably compromise its future.

Theo Casablanca is a blogger who lives in Brasília.