Uzbekistan plans to build a nuclear power plant 40 km from the border with Kazakhstan and the country’s most populous Turkestan region. Construction is planned in the Jizzakh region on the shores of Lake Tuzkan. Next to it, just a few tens of kilometers away, is the Shardara reservoir — a source of drinking water for the whole city, as well as a reservoir of strategic importance, located on the transboundary Syrdarya River.
The construction of a nuclear power plant in the Uzbek SSR was discussed back in the 80s of the last century. However, this topic was banned, since it was believed that it was impossible to build nuclear power plants in the country due to high seismic activity. In light of the recent earthquakes in Turkiye, which have turned into a tragedy, this aspect cannot be discounted.
An example is the Turkish nuclear power plant Akkuyu. The construction site of this nuclear power plant is located in the province of Mersin, which, in turn, is adjacent to the affected regions. There were recorded tremors with a force of 3 points.
According to the assurances of the project contractors, these shocks did not lead to damage to building structures. However, it is not known what the consequences would be if a station with a nuclear reactor were put into commercial operation.
Uzbekistan is located in a seismically active region. The last strong earthquake in Uzbekistan occurred in July 2011 in the Fergana region. Tremors of magnitude 6.5-7 were recorded there, 13 people died, 86 were injured. Mudflows and floods regularly occur in the mountainous regions of the republic.
Regularly «shakes» the Jizzakh region. In 1975, an earthquake of 5 points occurred in Jizzakh. In August 2016, another earthquake of magnitude 4.2 occurred there. In April 2018, the strength of the tremors reached three points.
Local activists constantly talk about the fact that the area is seismically active. Despite this, the authorities declare that there are no risks of building and operating a nuclear power plant, referring to the results of the studies.
The human factor should not be discounted either. The recent breakthrough of the Sardoba reservoir occurred due to poor technical condition. At the same time, everything was fine in the reports. Therefore, it is possible that in the event of an earthquake, the nuclear power plant may be damaged, which will lead to the leakage of radioactive material. If this happens, then large densely populated agglomerations of the country, which includes the capital of Uzbekistan will fall into the radiation impact zone.
The civil society of Kazakhstan has expressed concern about the forthcoming construction of a nuclear power plant. In May and October 2022, events were held in Shymkent to discuss this problem, in which scientists and environmentalists from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia took part.
In addition to earthquakes, there is another danger, which was told by the academician of the International Public Academy of Ecological Safety and Nature Management (MOAEBP), laureate of the Tatarstan State Prize for Ecology, chairman of the Anti-Nuclear Society of Tatarstan Albert Garapov. Thermal pollution of the earth also cannot be discounted. According to the scientist, the planet receives additional energy from nuclear power plants, which eventually turns into heat.
“Heat directly removed with water is 7,300 GJ/h per 1,000 MW of installed capacity for nuclear power plants. This affects changes in the local, in the region where the nuclear power plant is located, climate. Even now, this energy is approximately equal to the energy of living nature, which cannot but have an increasing impact on natural processes, for example, on climate, leading to warming. As you can see, nuclear power plants exacerbate the situation in this regard as well,” the environmentalist emphasized.
Overheating of the land in the area of the already shallow lake Tuzkan can lead to unforeseen consequences. After all, the reactors are cooled by water. That is why nuclear power plants are built on water bodies and are characterized by high water consumption. One million-plus unit or nuclear power plant with a capacity of one million kilowatts consumes two hundred thousand tons of water per hour or 55.5 m3 per second. Bereke infrastructure specialist Bauyrzhan Ashirbaev says that in the case of a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan, this will be at least 480,000 m3/hour, or more than 132 cubic meters of water per second.
“Water released from the cooling towers will disrupt the thermal balance of Lake Tuzkan and Aydarkol, which will greatly affect the ecology and biodiversity of this region. In addition, the operation of a nuclear power plant is accompanied by the release of a huge amount of thermal energy into the air in the form of steam, which will lead to local changes in temperature and microclimate,” said Bauyrzhan Ashirbaev.
By the way, the Aidar-Arnasay system of lakes, which includes Lake Tuzkan, is included in the Ramsar List (“Ramsar” Convention) of wetlands of international importance and is the most important bird area. Inclusion in the List of the Convention means that the state assumes obligations for the protection, management, research of wetlands, their rational use, and so on.
And Lake Tuzkan until 1969 was a small reservoir that experienced sharp seasonal fluctuations in water levels, sometimes completely drying up. And any human intervention can lead to unpredictable consequences.
The civil society is against to the nuclear power plant building
The start of construction of a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan was scheduled for the current year 2023. However, due to the geopolitical situation, this issue is still in limbo. The fact is that the project for the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Jizzakh region was developed by Russian specialists. Under the conditions of total sanctions, it is not possible to provide construction with all the necessary components, especially high-tech components.
“In the event of an emergency, Kazakhstan will suffer no less, but most likely more than Uzbekistan. Apparently, this is one of the reasons for the concern of the Kazakh environmental movement about the construction of the Uzbek nuclear power plant. Therefore, it was Kazakhstani ecologists who organized a «round table» on the Internet on the Uzbek nuclear power plant. In this regard, solidarity actions of the environmental movement of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan against nuclear power plants are required,” said Albert Garapov, academician of the International Public Academy of Ecological Safety and Nature Management (MOAEBP), laureate of the Tatarstan State Prize for Ecology, chairman of the Anti-Nuclear Society of Tatarstan at a round table meeting held in Shymkent in October 2022.
Saidrasul Sanginov, Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Central Council of the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan, said that the public in Uzbekistan is also awake.
“Five years ago, when the issue of building a nuclear power plant was just raised, this issue was raised in Uzbekistan at the national level and we had a series of meetings with UzAtom specialists. And recently there were meetings with specialists from Rosatom. After that, we mobilized the public, invited not only NGOs, but also media representatives. And they asked to organize a trip to the project area. Such a trip took place, although it was not easy. Recently, however, the public has not been informed about what is happening at the construction site. There is only information that the construction dates have been shifted, including in connection with recent geopolitical events. I want to emphasize that Uzbekistan has not signed either the Aarhus Convention or the EIA Convention (Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment). Meanwhile, the Aidar-Arnasay system suffers more than other inland water bodies. For five years, water from the Syr Darya has not been supplied there at all. Under the program «Mobilization of water resources to support the Aidar-Arnasay system of lakes» it is possible to mobilize only about 500 million cubic meters of water, and 3-4 times more is needed to maintain the current state. And this system of lakes dries up, the water level drops, the bottom is exposed,” said a representative from Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstani expert in the field of climate change, water resources and sustainable development, Bulat Yesekin, noted that nuclear power plants have long been no longer national objects and national affairs. Especially on transboundary rivers.
“The discussion of negotiations between NGOs should be translated into a discussion within countries between the public and the state. We need to unite with the public of Uzbekistan. On the example of Ukraine, we see that nuclear power plants are also becoming an object for military blackmail,” Bulat Yesekin emphasized.
Now in Kazakhstan, work is underway to create a working group, which will include social activists and environmentalists from the three countries.
The author of the article is Natalia Malysheva, a freelance journalist from Kazakhstan