On the night of January 23, Almaty and Kyrgyzstan residents felt strong earth tremors with a magnitude of 6.7, although the focus of seismic activity was 264 km from Almaty in China’s Xinjiang province with a magnitude of 7. In the first hour after the earthquake, neither Kazakh nor Kyrgyz residents received timely notification and information about further steps, and evacuation centers in Almaty remained closed, while in Kyrgyzstan there were none at all.
In an effort to diversify its energy portfolio, Kazakhstan has targeted the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Ulken village, just 360 kilometers from Almaty. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan is also considering building a nuclear power plant. The question arises: why did the governments decide to use such a dangerous technology? Is it possible to guarantee that seismic activity will not jeopardize the lives and health of residents in the future? Are there alternatives to nuclear power plants? We have already talked about the main risks of NPP construction and the benefits of renewable energy, so let us now take a closer look at the dangers associated with earthquakes.
By the way, seismic risks are particularly inherent in the Zhambyl region, which was chosen for the NPP in Kazakhstan. The recent earthquake combined with the proposed NPP location “highlight” the short-sightedness of the authorities’ decision. The potential for catastrophes is increasing, posing a clear and present danger to both the environment and the population.
Lyudmila Petrova, Director of NGO “Angel”, Master of Ecology, member of CAN EECCA network:
“I am categorically against the construction of nuclear power plants in Kazakhstan! If you analyze all expensive projects, everywhere you can note very serious risks – corruption and low responsibility. And the earthquake in Almaty on the night of January 23 showed it very clearly. The early warning system, on which over a billion budget tenge was spent, did not work. There were no simple SMS-alerts in the first minutes, no instructions for the population on what to do next.
You cannot build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan! Firstly, it is too expensive and a long-term project (Light rail in Astana has not been built for more than 15 years). And secondly, the risks are too high and not worth the lives of future generations in case of an emergency at the NPP.“
If we decide to turn to international experience, it is worth recalling the events of 2011. In Japan, a magnitude 9 earthquake off the east coast of Honshu Island caused the largest radiation accident at the Fukushima-1 nuclear power plant, which subsequently spread 20 kilometers, leading to the evacuation of 150,000 people. More than 10 years later, cities in northeastern Japan remain closed and the return of residents is impossible for another 30-40 years.
Another striking example is the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkey by Rosatom. Just a year ago, in January 2023, two devastating earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.8 occurred 270 kilometers from the location. According to Rosatom’s official position (notably, not the Turkish authorities), the facility was not damaged. However, due to the lack of transparency and access to the site we cannot state for sure. Even though this time the earthquake was not devastating to Akkuyu NPP, it does not mean that it will not threaten in the future. Can Turkey be considered lucky because the reactor fuel rods have not yet been delivered?
Unfortunately, until today, the Akkuyu NPP site has already experienced many problems such as cracks, water leakage, explosion and fire since 2019 when construction started. The construction project itself was signed back in 2010 against the demands of activists and civil society.
Returning to the plans of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the countries are keen to use nuclear energy despite the possibility of switching to safer alternatives. Members of the former’s government plan to hold a referendum on the construction of the first nuclear power plant. At the same time, the share of RES in Kazakhstan’s energy sector is currently only 5%, while Kyrgyzstan’s RES potential is estimated at 38 billion kWh/year. In comparison, during the 14 years while the NPP in Turkey is under construction, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan can modernize their energy systems and connect them to wind and solar power, which are not afraid of earthquakes.