Bomb to Nuclear Power Fuel – It All Happened Before Her Eyes

Svetlana Mordvinova – a bridge between two histories of Kazakhstan

-Prashant Tandon*

Oskemen (Kazakhstan):  In post World War II when the then Soviet Union was gearing up to become a balancing power in the world a young chemical scientist, Svetlana Mordvinova began an unusual career in Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk)  – now eastern city of Kazakhstan. In 1950, twenty something Svetlana moved here from Russia with her scientist husband and both were deployed in Ulba Metallurgical Plant – the hub of producing materials for nuclear bombs during the cold war.

Writer Prashant Tandon with Svetlana Mordvinova

The area was under the veil of secrecy and surveillance, explains Svetlana remembering those days. Pointing the portrait of Josef Stalin in the plant’s museum where she is employed now Svetlana told the author that she rarely moved out from the campus. At 74 she now lives on two sides of history.

The Ulba plant area which now houses the IAEA LEU Bank is still under the secrecy and high level of security. With Kazakhstan is making a strong pitch in multi-billion dollar civil nuclear industry Ulba plant again plays a crucial role as it produces nuclear fuel pellets and other key components for nuclear reactors and has signed agreements with many nations including India for nuclear fuel supply.

Kazakhstan has one fifth of world’s uranium reserves and expanding mining rapidly.  Today it is the leading uranium producer with 39% of the world production.  With the facilities like Ulba Metallurgical Plant Kazakhstan sells enriched fuel pellets rather than raw uranium.

Now a subsidiary of Kazatomprom – the national atomic company of Kazakhstan, Ulba also produces rare metals and alloys like Beryllium and Tantalum. Besides being used in making various parts of nuclear reactor Tantalum is also used for orthopedic purposes as the metal is not rejected by human body.

In last few years Kazakhstan under Nursultan Nazarbayev moved swiftly in nuclear power world market and through state owned Kazatomprom, formed strategic partnership with Russia, Japan and China, acquiring sizable shares in Westinghouse – leading international reactor supplier. It also signed a joint venture with French nuclear company Areva for uranium mining, enrichment and fuel marketing.  In April 2017 Kazatomprom formed a Swiss-based trading subsidiary TH Kazatom. Kazatomprom claims that new venture not only will bring greater liquidity to the uranium market it will also buy and sell on the spot market.

Kazakhstan is the only country in the world who has voluntarily given up nuclear weapons option. With this it has acquired another distinction of becoming the biggest uranium supplier and signed commercial deals with almost every big nuclear player of the world – peace fosters better business.

Feature Image Credit: Astana Times

*Senior Journalist and Expert Energy Affairs