By Eugene Lee
The media today are full of discussions that have arisen after a chain of catastrophes at nuclear facilities around the world. The number of people for and against the construction of nuclear power plants is roughly equal. However, in recent years the number of proponents of nuclear-free electricity is on the increase.
The plan of the government of Uzbekistan for the construction of a nuclear power plant caused a mixed reaction in Central Asia. Opponents of the idea, mainly residents of the region and those in geographic proximity to the location of the potential plant and the closest neighboring states reasonably fear for their future, pointing to the disasters in Ukraine, Japan and other countries,.
According to the plan, the power plant will be built by the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation, or RosAtom, on a site near Lake Tuzkan Aydar in the Jizzakh region. The planned cost of the project is about $11 billion with groundbreaking in 2028. Uzbekistan expects to save about 7 billion cubic meters of natural gas after the launch, meaning savings of $550-600 million annually.
However, these very promising figures did not cause any euphoria among the citizens of Uzbekistan. Moreover, a larger proportion of the public there is increasingly wary of the idea of a nuclear reactor in the neighborhood. Indeed, the disasters at nuclear plants in Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan clearly demonstrated what those nuclear projects could lead to. And even the most ambitious forecasts of any economic benefits cannot justify the damage and especially life losses near such a plant.
In considering the various characteristics of the Central Asian region, I must admit that this is not the most stable place on the world map. If we talk about the safety of nuclear power plants in general, they have a rather high percentage of risk added if built in such a region. Environmental activists who oppose the realization of the project have already created a Facebook group called Uzbekistan Against Nuclear Power Plants. Its participants have sent petitions to the president of Uzbekistan, as well as to the chairman of the upper house of the Uzbekistani parliament, the Narbaeva; RosAtom General Director Alexei Likhachev; and the leadership of the IAEA. They’ve indicated that the decision to build the nuclear power plant was made without any public hearings or discussion. That is, without the consent of the people of Uzbekistan.
Ordinary people drew the attention of the government to the fact that the decision was also made without taking into account the opinion of any specialists in the republic. They argue that a question of this gravity is worth holding a referendum on. In principle, freedom of expression of the people’s will on vital issues in Uzbek realities does not sound quite typical. The newly elected authorities of the country have continued to implement democratization and respect for rights and freedom. However, the political leadership did not consider it necessary to consult the people on the proposed construction. As we see, the conditions of the previous harsh autocratic rule from 1991 to 2016 are still making themselves felt.
Moreover, the authors did not take into account the geographic location of the republic. The Jizzakh region is one of the most seismically active regions of the country. At least 10 to 12 earthquakes with an amplitude of one to four on the Richter scale are recorded there annually. In addition to that, the hot climate is not suitable for storing nuclear waste. These facts worry many local experts.
There is yet another issue. An operating nuclear power plant can easily become a target for terrorists and extremists engaged in hybrid and asymmetric wars. The location of the proposed nuclear plant is not far from the unstable Afghanistan. The situation in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, is troubled. The well-known events of 1989 in the Ferghana Valley, when more than a hundred people lost their lives during interethnic conflict, and the regular cross-border conflict with and between neighboring states do not draw an optimistic picture, especially in terms of the ability of the local elite to keep the situation under control in the case of an emergency at the nuclear power plant.
It seems that the government of the Central Asian country isn’t trying to neglect the lessons of the past, nor is it trying to abandon the nuclear power plant project. And the fact is the government of Uzbekistan is in no hurry to listen to the voices of its scientists and specialists. Will the voice of people be heard? Many public and non-governmental organizations are sounding the alarm on this issue and exposing it in the international arena. For example, the topic was raised at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe at which human rights issues in Uzbekistan were discussed along with the nuclear topic. The discontent has been raised as the authorities of the republic are ignoring public opinion on many pressing problems.
Another noteworthy fact is that recently, the post-Soviet republic of Lithuania has requested the EU Council to convince another former Soviet republic, Belarus, to reconsider its plans for the BelAES, another nuclear power plant built by RosAtom. Minsk is being accused that before the start of operation of the nuclear power plant it has not undertaken all its obligations to fully implement recommendations regarding safety before its upcoming launch. However, to discuss that would be another story.
Eugene Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an adjunct professor of international studies at the Graduate School of Governance at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.