Today, 24th of February marks the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine which has led to significant climate and energy consequences not only in Europe, but in the Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia (EECCA) region. CAN EECCA will try to analyze impacts of the war on the region using two recent developments: nuclear ambition of Rosatom and discussions on green transition with energy independence from Russia.

Russia’s nuclear ambition in Central Asia strengthened within the war; could Western sanctions stop it?

Despite the ongoing Russian occupation of the Zaporizzya nuclear power plant in Ukraine, Rosatom is signing deals with Central Asian governments on building nuclear power plants. Russia has long had a nuclear presence in Central Asia, dating back to the Soviet era. During the Soviet era, Central Asia was a key region for the production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union conducted hundreds of nuclear weapons tests at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in eastern Kazakhstan, which was one of the largest nuclear test sites in the world. This testing caused significant environmental and health damage to the surrounding areas.

Today, Russia continues to use nuclear energy as a geopolitical tool, with several projects currently underway. One of the key projects is the construction of a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan. The project is being carried out by Rosatom, and is expected to be completed by 2028. Rosatom has also signed agreements with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to cooperate on the building of nuclear power plants. Neither of these countries currently have nuclear power plants. Russia’s nuclear ambition in Central Asia has generated some concerns among experts, environmental activists, as well as the international community, over potential security risks, debt and political implications.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan’s civil society started to worry

In Kyrgyzstan a network called Green Alliance made a statement opposing construction of a nuclear power plant in the country. Representatives of the association of legal entities sent a corresponding letter to the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Natural Resources, Ecology and Technical Supervision.

“Although it is emphasized that this is a low-power nuclear power plant, it is well known that even small sources of atomic energy and a small amount of radioactive substances can have a negative impact on both the environment and human health,» the letter says. «The question arises: where will radioactive raw materials for nuclear power plants come from? The aforementioned decree states that «import of raw materials containing uranium and thorium and waste into the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic is not allowed. Thus, based on this resolution, the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant no longer has a legislative basis for construction” — argues Green Alliance.

Kazakhstan’s environmental activists have been also organizing meetings and round table discussions on environmental and political consequences of Rosatom’s agreement. Kazakhstan-based ecologist Dmitry Kalmykov, who repeatedly stood against construction of the nuclear power plant, said to CabarAsia it’s only the risk of explosion that eliminates all the advantages.

“Nuclear power is safe until the nuclear reactor explodes. As long as everything is ok, it is a million times cleaner than the coal plant, once everything goes bad, it becomes a million times dirtier. Therefore, we think it’s better to use safer technologies. They might be not so lovely and sophisticated, yet they cannot put an end to the whole region for 40-100 years” — said Dmitry Kalmykov.

With the long-term implications of Russia’s nuclear presence in Central Asia the main question remains: would it be peaceful? With the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia occupied and targeted nuclear power plants like Zaporizhzhya and Chernobyl, causing an international alert on the security of the region.

Is it possible that sanctions against Rosatom could have an impact on Russia’s nuclear ambition in Central Asia? Although Rosatom is very ambitious about driving nuclear energy projects in the region, introducing sanctions would significantly disrupt these plans and potentially discourage other countries from working with Rosatom. Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairmen of the Russian environmental group Ecodefense warns that Rosatom can take an active part in the war, and it needs more sanctions: “There are three points one needs to know: first, Rosatom takes an active part in the war in Ukraine. Its employees accompanied Russian troops when they occupied the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Then they took control over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest in Europe. Second, Rosatom employees are in charge of the nuclear weapons Vladimir Putin is threatening other countries with. Rosatom is one of the main “geo-political” instruments that the Russian president has to make other countries dependent on Russian nuclear fuel and services. When Rosatom builds new nuclear reactors in some developing country, it creates a dependence on Russia for over a century”.

The war is changing the green transition narrative in EECCA region

Russian invasion of Ukraine has created significant challenges for the green transition of EECCA countries. Initially, the war has put aside climate ambition, bringing energy security issues to the forefront. Despite this, there have been some positive developments in terms of energy independence narrative and the role renewables could play in it. Ukraine learned the lesson the hardest way possible. Now, during a period of electricity deficit, due to Russian attacks on energy infrastructure, Ukrainian municipalities are feeling the power of decentralized renewable power. There are already examples of new renewable based projects in the affected communities. «For example, thanks to the initiative of the NGO Ecoclub, solar power plants complete with batteries have already been installed in several Ukrainian hospitals. The plant have 32.4 kW of PV installed capacity which is enough to ensure the operation of 11 ventilators to keep patients in intensive care units alive.» wrote Olha Boiko, coordinator of the CAN EECCA.

In Kyrgyzstan, members of the CAN EECCA, Unison Group are working on legislation for green transition. Unison supports the Kyrgyz government in its renewable energy, energy efficiency and governance efforts to ensure that marginalized groups of Kyrgyz society (such as rural families and low-income households) receive continuous and reliable access to energy for their daily needs.

More examples are appearing in the communities, as connecting renewables to energy security becomes easier.

How can countries of the EECCA region gain energy independence from Russia?

Achieving energy independence from Russia is a complex task not only for Europe but for the EECCA countries too. During 2022 it was obvious how Moscow was using its fossil fuel export as a leverage in the war, cutting gas access to some European countries and forcing all countries to pay in rubles. However, there are several long-term strategies that can help reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies. Diversifying energy sources is an important step in this transition. It could involve expanding the use of decentralized renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal and investing in energy storage technologies. At the same time, improving energy efficiency is crucial to reduce energy demand and dependence on external suppliers. Some countries in the EECCA region can suffer average 70% loss of heat during the winter season, resulting in highly inefficient energy use.

According to the joint research made by Institute of New Energy Systems in Germany and Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development in UK: “It is estimated that almost 60% to 80% of buildings in Central Asia are earthen buildings built mainly from soil, clay, and adobe without proper building codes. The age of dwellings in combination with vernacular architecture is a key reason for the high energy utilization in the residential sector for heating in Central Asia. The absence of modern heat energy supply services, low-income, and high heat demand of low energy-efficient building stocks in rural localities promote solid fuel consumption for house heating”.

Energy independence is a long-term process that requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach from the governments, strong civil society, developing academia as well as skilled workers and fighting corruption.

Civil society can play a crucial role in ensuring energy independence and promoting the benefits of transitioning to sustainable energy sources. It is important to understand that the peace and security in the EECCA region can only be built with the representatives of all levels of society together. We must prevent further suffering and destruction of livelihoods, but for that, we have to stop depending on petrostates and focus on developing an alternative energy system. The sooner people in the EECCA region will have access to clean decentralized energy, the more resilient these communities will be in the face of the climate crisis.

By Baktygul Chynybaeva

CAN EECCA Communication Manager