Currently, the Kazakhstan citizens are grappling with an important energy decision. In Zhambyl region, located in the southern part of the country, the government intends to undertake two significant projects — a 1 GW wind power plant (WPP) and two nuclear power plant (NPP) units with a combined capacity of 2.4 GW. These projects involve the areas of Ulken and Mirnyi, with a mere 60 kilometers separating them.
While the primary motivation for the first project is to achieve 15% renewable energy sources (RES) by 2030, the rationale behind the NPP construction lies in generating new job opportunities for the local population and achieving energy independence.
In this article, we will compare these major energy projects across various parameters and endeavor to speculate on which one is likely to yield greater benefits for the country and its citizens.
Kazakhstan has made substantial strides in the development of wind energy. Presently, there are 46 wind power plant facilities in the country, contributing to a total energy production of 958 MW by the end of 2022. According to the plans outlined by the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, wind power plants alone are expected to produce 5.1 million MWh this year. However, despite this progress, the share of renewable energy sources (RES) in the country’s energy sector remains at a modest 5%.
The construction speed of such plants, from laying the foundation to delivering electricity from the first turbines to the grid, typically takes up to six months—a significantly faster timeline compared to any nuclear power plant. Moreover, the presence of storage facilities can address the issue of electricity instability associated with wind power generation.
Wind power represents a promising source of employment, covering manufacturing, installation, operation, and maintenance of wind turbines. In 2022, the U.S. wind energy sector employed over 125,000 people, as reported by the American Wind Energy Association. Notably, the wind turbine technician is the second fastest-growing job, with a projected 44% increase over the next decade.
Furthermore, the traditionally excluded demographic of women is now playing a more substantial role in the energy sector. Women constitute 32% of the total renewable energy workforce, contributing to increased diversity in an industry crucial for enhancing the sustainability of energy use and, consequently, all economic activities.
Concerning nuclear power, Kazakhstan has held the title of the world’s leading uranium producer since 2009. The country is contemplating the construction of a nuclear power plant that could potentially fulfill a substantial portion of its energy needs. However, nuclear power poses significant environmental risks, both in non-emergency accident scenarios and in the planned utilization and disposal of radioactive waste.
When considering construction time, the average duration for building a nuclear power unit spans 7-9 years. In contrast, the commissioning time for wind and solar power generation of similar capacity is 10-15 times shorter and doesn’t entail tackling complex issues such as ensuring radiation safety and managing radioactive waste. Moreover, the construction timeframe for nuclear power plants may extend during the execution of works. For instance, a recent mini-nuclear power plant project in the United States was shut due to a 53% increase in costs.
The extended construction time required for nuclear plants raises serious concerns about achieving climate goals, as existing fossil fuel plants continue to emit CO2 while awaiting replacement.
Zhanat Salimova-Tekai, an energy financier and economist, highlighted in a recent interview for Ecostan that, according to a report by the Clean Energy Ministerial, an international platform, nuclear power plants generate between 400 and 1,000 jobs per gigawatt of installed capacity. However, the accompanying graph illustrates that solar and wind power plants create an equivalent or even double the number of jobs for the same energy output.
As you can see in the graph, solar and wind electric strandings create equal or twice as many jobs for the same energy output.
Salimova-Tekai also emphasized the nature of the job availability. The construction of the nuclear power plant (NPP) will require highly specialized specialists with skills that may not be readily accessible to residents of Pribalkhash. Moreover, even simpler roles might be elusive for many Kazakh citizens due to the facility’s specific nature and the associated access restrictions.
In contrast, solar and wind farms generate a multitude of versatile job opportunities. These include roles such as installers, electricians, crane operators, and other specialists whose skills can be applied across various industries.
In addition according to Wind Europe‘s projections, the wind energy sector will employ 437,000 people by 2030 in the lowest scenario.
Wind power plants offer rapid and reliable energy generation along with abundant employment opportunities. Conversely, nuclear power entails substantial environmental risks and demands significant time and financial investments. Additionally, nuclear power plants rely on water sources for reactor cooling, a resource that may become scarce due to drought.
The environments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have already borne the impact of nuclear power, placing these countries in a climate risk zone due to water resource challenges for cooling reactors. Abnormal temperatures, as recorded by Kazhydromet, further underscore the potential dangers of constructing nuclear power plants, posing risks to both the environment and society.
The future choice between wind power and nuclear power in Kazakhstan remains uncertain. It is crucial that energy development in the country will prioritize the interests of citizens and integrate the best available technologies, all while avoiding the deepening of environmental and political risks for the nation.
Prepared by Nazik Mamasadykova