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With the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom’s work globally unaffected by the lockdown caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, preparations are underway for starting construction of the first nuclear plant in Central Asia after a long gap, to be built in Uzbekistan by the Uzbek state nuclear agency Uzatom, which has signed an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) agreement for the project with Rosatom.

Uzbekistan, which has the world’s seventh largest uranium reserves, plans to build its first nuclear power plant (NPP) that will consist of two next generation VVER-1200 reactors, scheduled for commissioning in 2028 and 2030 at a site near Lake Tuzkan in the country’s Farishsky district. At a webinar organised by Rosatom during the recently concluded 64th general congress of the Vienna-headquartered International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a senior Uzatom official made a presentation about the proposed NPP and the benefits it would bring to the country’s economy.

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia, and has one of the world’s fastest growing economies with the World Bank having projected (before the COVID-19 pandemic) its GDP to grow at 5.5 percent in 2020. Uzatom estimates that the country will need to double its electricity output by 2030 to meet consumer demand. Uzbekistan’s current reliance on coal, gas, oil and hydropower will not be enough to meet the growing demand, even with plans to double its hydropower capacity by 2030.

The head of Uzatom’s international cooperation and investment attraction department, Abbosbek Adilov, told the IAEA webinar panel that Uzbekistan’s current electricity demand is around 69 billion kilowatt hours (KWh), while the country produces 64 billion KWh, and total demand is expected to rise to 117 billion KWh by 2030. “The two proposed VVER 1200 reactors will add 2,400 MW of electricity to the grid, which will lead to saving of 3-3.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas,” he said.

Uzbekistan’s current installed power capacity is 14.4 gigawatt (GW, equivalent to 14,400 MW), of which 85 percent comes from thermal sources, Adilov said. By 2030, this capacity, with the addition of nuclear power, is expected to go up to 20 GW, when the thermal component would drop to 66 percent, he added. According to Uzatom, nuclear energy is expected to account for over 15 percent of the country’s generation mix and ensure stable energy supply with the expectation of power demand doubling by 2030.

With abundant uranium resources, Uzbekistan is naturally not new to nuclear power, and has been involved in researching nuclear technologies for 60 years. Its Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Academy of Sciences operated a 10 MW research reactor till as recently as last year. The country has been a member of the IAEA since 1994. Project operator Uzatom, which manages the government’s nuclear power programme, was created in July 2018. In October that year, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a cooperation agreement to build an NPP in Uzbekistan to launch a project that is of strategic interest to both nations.

“Such a big scale project as the proposed large-capacity NPP makes a significant contribution to the economic and social development of Uzbekistan. It is estimated that one US dollar invested in the proposed NPP, which includes two VVER-1200 reactors, and localization at the level of 20–30 percent, can bring $1.9 to local suppliers, $4.3 for the country’s GDP and $1.4 to the budget in the form of tax revenues, besides thousands of new jobs created,” Adilov said.

He also emphasised that given the country’s climatic and seismological conditions, first consideration has been accorded to the safety of the planned NPP. Uzatom has undertaken extensive seismic surveys around Lake Turkan and conducted a safety seminar with the IAEA to ensure that the nuclear plant will not be built in a fault zone. The proposed Generation 3+ reactors are able to ensure the safety of the plant even in the most extreme conditions, do no harm to the environment, and is the safest modern technology in the world as confirmed by the IAEA.

On the choice of Rosatom as the project partner to provide “affordable, predictable, clean energy that can supply base-load power”, Adilov said that the VVER-1200 project has references that it works successfully in Russia – at the Leningrad and Novovoronezh nuclear plants. “Today, Russian technologies have been chosen by countries such as Finland, Hungary, Turkey, India, Bangladesh, China, among others. Rosatom’s current order book consists of 36 units in 12 countries that are at different stages of implementation”, he added.

Adilov concluded by saying that the IAEA has been actively supporting Uzbekistan in building capacity for the country’s nuclear programme. Around 100 technical cooperation projects have been completed involving financial assistance of $20 million. Moreover, 4 projects aimed at building Uzbekistan’s technical capacity, human resources, developing nuclear infrastructure, as well as strengthening nuclear and radiation safety were approved by the IAEA last year. Besides, a branch of the Moscow-based National Research Nuclear University MEPhI has been created in Uzbekistan to train personnel, while 100 Uzbek students were recruited at MEPhI, Moscow, last year.