• Home
  • ‘Peaceful Atom’ Sparks Fierce Debate in Kazakh Village Slated to Host Nuclear Power Plant

28 August 2023

‘Peaceful Atom’ Sparks Fierce Debate in Kazakh Village Slated to Host Nuclear Power Plant

The Kazakh village of Ulken is set to host a new nuclear power plant, but while some residents are hopeful of the resulting population boom, others are more worried about the potential environmental impacts.

‘Peaceful Atom’ Sparks Fierce Debate in Kazakh Village Slated to Host Nuclear Power Plant

Image: engel.ac/Shutterstock

(RFE.RL) ULKEN, Kazakhstan -- Plans are under way to build a nuclear power plant (NPP) scheduled to be online by 2035, to supply Kazakhstan's soaring energy needs.

In Ulken, where the plant is likely to be built, opinions among the village's 1,500 residents on what a nuclear future for their impoverished lakeside village would look like are split.

Ulken is located 330 kilometers northwest of Almaty on the shores of Lake Balkhash. The village was created in the 1980s to house workers for a planned hydroelectric power plant. That project was unfinished when the Soviet Union collapsed and high-rise apartments are the only completed constructions from the period.

Officially, Ulken is a village, but it feels like an urban settlement. There are no houses here, only apartments. There is no livestock, and no gardens grow in the rocky soil.

In the 1990s, the residents of Ulken eked out a living from fishing. Even 30 years later most people still rely on the lake for their livelihoods. The fish they catch is sent to one of three factories in the village.

Natalya Khairulina has a cafe and a shop in Ulken. Few people come to her cafeteria, she says. Local people eat at home, and guests from outside the village are rare. She runs several businesses to survive.

Khairulina arrived in the village as a schoolgirl. Her parents moved here and purchased an apartment in preparation for taking part in building the power station. When the project died out it was impossible to sell their apartment, in a remote village with a bleak future, so they stayed on.

"No one was buying apartments at that time," she said. "Eventually, people from neighboring villages came and moved in. The village was saved thanks to those settlers."

Khairulina wants to increase the population of Ulken, renovate the village, and give life to the abandoned apartments. For these reasons she supports the construction of an NPP. "If the project starts, civilization will come," she said. The villager is concerned for the environment, but said, "We are not afraid of environmental problems, now everything is made with modern technology."

Fishermen in Ulken are largely against the NPP project because they fear that Lake Balkhash will be affected and that fishing there could eventually be banned.

It's not difficult to find fishermen. In front of one abandoned apartment, fish hang in the breeze.

The owner of the property is a young man named Rinat. The 34-year-old fisherman has devoted half of his life to the profession and works the lake every day. Rinat firmly opposes the construction of an NPP.

"The lake sustains us," he said. "This year the water level in the Balkhash dropped severely, and the fish population decreased. If an NPP is built, there will be no water left in the lake," Rinat claimed.

At the grocery store, I met another resident, Aleksei Losev. The 35-year-old moved to Ulken six years ago to live with his future wife. He's not a fisherman, but does not expect anything good from the construction of the NPP.

"On one hand I support its construction, because new jobs will be created, people will come from abroad, and the village will develop. On the other hand, it's about ecology," he said, before referencing a troubled Soviet-era NPP in western Kazakhstan that is currently being decommissioned. "Three kilometers from Aqtau there is the Manghystau NPP. The environmental situation there is bad. Why? Wastewater! Both fish and seals are dying.... It will be the same here," he said.

For those who arrived in the village during the Soviet period to work in construction, the project is strongly supported.

Seventy-year-old Vladimir Braun moved here from Kaskelen, a small town near Almaty.

"I don’t think the NPP will affect the lake. Good engineers should be hired to avoid violations. The whole world is building NPPs, why can't we?" he said while putting freshly caught fish into his backpack.

When asked if he will attend the public discussion about the planned construction, he responded, "I'm old, let the youth decide." Then he reconsidered. "Perhaps I will go. Otherwise, I might be upset that we don't build. Every vote is important in such a matter.

In the small assembly hall of the Ulken high school where the August 21 meeting to discuss the NPP took place, it was standing room only. Environmental activists who had travelled from Almaty for the meeting unfurled posters calling to put a stop to the project as residents chanted, "we support the peaceful atom!"

When the discussion on the planned NPP got under way it was clear that there would be little constructive conversation. The emotions of the crowd boiled over.

"We are against the nuclear power plant, it will destroy Balkhash Lake!" activists shouted.

"You're not a nuclear specialist, how do you know it will be harmful? You don't live in Ulken" responded some residents.

"It is not only an Ulken problem, this topic should be discussed by all of Kazakhstan!" the activists countered.

Opponents of the construction of a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan demonstrate in Ulken on August 22.

The microphone quality was poor, and the speakers' words were drowned out by the noise in the hall during the meeting. Even when the commotion died down, it was difficult to understand what the speakers were saying. A man in his 30s with black hair appeared. He introduced himself as Ruslan Kurakov.

"I have been living in Ulken for three years, the houses are empty, the infrastructure is not developing," he told the crowd. "The nuclear power station will provide impetus, new jobs will be created, life in Ulken will be revived. People who make noise are just here to divide, I urge residents not to listen to them. They just came to argue with you and provoke," Ruslan shouted in the noisy hall.

Another local man hoped to work in the future energy sector.

"We residents have been waiting for this construction for 40 years," he said. "We started with the construction of the power station, we spent days without heat and electricity, we went through many different events together. Ulken needs this energy, this is the center of Kazakhstan. Our region is seismologically stable! There are 15 nuclear power plants in Japan, which has an earthquake every month. Energy is scarce and very expensive in our country. We all need electricity. We support the peaceful atom!" he said.

People in the hall clapped and someone asked, "What about solar energy?" nobody seemed to hear the question amid chants of "Peaceful atom! Peaceful atom!"

Then environmentalist Svetlana Mogilyuk spoke. Like many others, Svetlana came to Ulken to take part in the discussion.

"Dear residents, we have now listened very carefully to what was said," Mogilyuk said. "No basic, truthful information was provided to you. In contrast to the claim that nuclear energy is not harmful to health, there are qualified studies showing that nuclear energy is still harmful! Numerous studies also confirm that children who live near nuclear power plants are more likely to develop leukemia, and deaths from cancer increase by 24 percent."

As she made these claims, her microphone cut off. She continued without it.

"Nuclear power plants are harmful, they are accompanied by radioactive emissions. Citizens! You are now being told a lie! Hearings must be accompanied by basic information! You must understand that apart from the NPP, you have other opportunities, you have the opportunity to develop other types of electricity. They will be no less powerful, no less effective, but safer!"

Aleksandr Klepikov, the deputy director of Kazakhstan's Scientific and Technical Center for the Safety of Nuclear Technologies, also participated in the public discussion in Ulken. He is not against the construction of the NPP, but says there is a range of issues to be taken into account.

"Building a nuclear power station is expensive, it takes a long time for the facility to pay for itself," Klepikov said. "When the Japanese conducted a study on the possibility of building a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan, they asked, 'What is the industrial development plan?' This would show that we have not only a source of energy, but also enough consumers for the NPP to operate efficiently."

"Kazakhstan," Klepikov said, "could not answer this question."

Kazakh Deputy Energy Minister Zhandos Nurmagambetov told journalists in Astana that, "before the station is built, a feasibility study and environmental impact assessment will be done, and the opinions of all interested parties will be collected."

But many in Kazakhstan feel the construction of an NPP is a done deal for the government and that far more depends on its decision than the prospects for locals of a small village on the banks of the Balkhash.