Kazatomprom: steering the Nuclear Sector of Kazakhstan
According to the World Nuclear Association, Kazakhstan is the world’s sixth largest uranium producer. The national organization for the nuclear industry in Kazakhstan is the National Atomic Company Kazatomprom.
In July 2002 Kazatomprom will celebrate its fifth anniversary of establishment. Though the company is very young, it incorporates enterprises that are as old as the nuclear industry itself. Today, the production culture which stems from the former Soviet defence industry guarantees the high quality of the company’s products.
The company comprises enterprises which can be classified into two supplementary complexes.
The first complex - a producer of natural uranium-consists of three mining enterprises, three uranium producing joint ventures established in cooperation with the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy and the world’s largest nuclear companies Cogema and Cameco, and one geological survey enterprise - Volkovgeology - which is engaged in exploring new uranium fields.
The second complex is represented by the Ulba Metallurgical Plant - one of the largest companies in Kazakhstan - consisting of units producing fuel pellets for nuclear power stations and tantalum and beryllium products. In the past, Ulba Metallurgical Plant was a special-purpose enterprise that worked on special military orders. When Kazakhstan acceded to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the plant converted all its facilities to non-military production.
Natural Uranium Production
Now, Kazatomprom is already among the world’s ten largest uranium producers and has the chance of getting into the top five uranium suppliers. Such confidence rests on the ability to extract most of the uranium using the in situ leaching (ISL) method, rather than on the fact that, with 19% of the total, Kazakhstan has the world’s second largest natural uranium reserves. This method ensures high profitability for the field’s development, is environmentally clean and also avoids the physical presence of workers in the extraction process.
In 2001, Kazatomprom produced 2015.5 tonnes of natural uranium using the ISL method (excluding production by joint ventures). In November 2001, the company brought new ISL mines into operation - South Moinkum and South Karamurun - and Kazatomprom is currently conducting test working at the Akdala mine. In 10 to 15 years, by the time the world has used up the uranium stock accumulated during the Cold War period, Kazakhstan, along with Canada and Australia, will become the world’s largest supplier of uranium to the nuclear power generating industry.
Kazatomprom is the largest supplier of all types of fuel pellets for Russian nuclear reactors. In 2000, the company concluded a long-term agreement with TVEL JSC (Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy) for production of fuel pellets, and in 2001 Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine established a joint venture in order to ensure stable orders for fuel pellets supplied to Ukraine’s nuclear reactors. In line with stricter safety requirements for nuclear reactor operations, Ulba Metallurgical Plant has developed a unique technology that provides for production of fuel pellets with the addition of burnable neutrons in form of gadolinium and erbium oxides. This technology allows the plant to attract additional orders for fuel pellets.
Kazatomprom is also a certified supplier of reduced-enrichment uranium dioxide powder to General Electric. The company is able to produce fuel pellets and powder uranium dioxide for light-water-moderated reactors or CANDU (Canadian deuterium uranium) reactors in accordance with Western companies’ requirements. In producing uranium dioxide powder, Ulba Metallurgical Plant utilizes the ADU extraction process which ensures high purity and homogeneity of the product and also enhances its ceramic properties. Available technology allows virtually all types of uranium-containing materials to be used. We produce the same high quality uranium dioxide powder from uranium hexafluoride and uranium oxides, various kinds of scrap, cinders, metallic uranium, uranium tetrafluoride, and other uranium-containing materials, including returned fissile materials. Our company’s quality assurance and control system has been certified by the TUV CERT organization in accordance with ISO 9002, which also guarantees the high quality of our products.
Last year, in order to supply the Global Nuclear Fuel joint venture established by the well-known General Electric, Hitachi and Toshiba companies, the company brought a production line into operation, allowing processing of uranium-containing materials remaining after production of fuel for nuclear power plants (scrap), including uranium oxides, uranium metal, uranium tetrafluoride, uranium-containing cinders, and gadolinium- and erbium-containing materials. This is a very promising direction for the company and provides it with a unique opportunity to separate uranium-containing scrap into nuclear quality uranium and other relatively harmless substances. The US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham put a high value on the technology developed by the specialists of Ulba Metallurgical Plant.
Beryllium is one of the most important materials used in the nuclear industry. Thanks to its unique properties, new applications are being found for beryllium in the nuclear, aerospace, electronic, and petroleum industries.
Ulba Metallurgical Plant is one of the only two present-day beryllium producers in the world. The plant’s production process covers all phases - starting from extracting beryllium from concentrate and finishing with producing beryllium metal, copper-beryllium, aluminum-beryllium, and nickel-beryllium alloys, construction alloys, beryllium-based ceramics, and beryllium bronze, including products made of these materials.
Despite its uniqueness, the plant stood almost idle in 1992 because it had received no orders. During 1997-2001, Kazatomprom was conducting extensive marketing and organizational work in order to extricate beryllium production from the crisis. The company developed a new product structure for which a market demand existed, and concluded contracts directly with Western companies. This efficient and focussed work allowed beryllium production to be restored quickly and at the same time redirected it according to market principles. In July 2000, Kazakhstan produced its first beryllium metal. In August 2001, a hydrometallurgical beryllium concentrate processing facility came into operation. In late 2001, the plants started producing beryllium bronze slab, thus reaching the last development phase of producing rolled beryllium bronze and hence higher product quality. Jointly with the US-based Brush Wellman company, the plant brought a production line for carbothermal copper-beryllium alloys into operation.
So Kazakhstan managed to restore its beryllium production in a short period of time, certifying and adding two new facilities for producing carbothermal alloys and beryllium bronze (accounting for 70% of the beryllium market). The plant concluded long-term contracts with US-based Brush Wellman and Japanese Marubeni. As a result of these measures, the plant has received many orders, loading it fully until 2010. The orders received by the plant have already exceeded the capacity built in Soviet times, therefore it is currently constructing a new hydrometallurgical production facility that will utilize up-to-date extraction technology. By the end of 2003, Kazakhstan will be producing 33% more beryllium than the entire USSR in its most favourable times.
Tantalum and Niobium Production. Hydrofluoric Acid
The development of the electronics industry around the world has led to increased demand for tantalum powder for capacitors used in the production of computer chips, cellular phones, etc. Today, this industry consumes up to 70% of the world’s tantalum production.
Ulba Metallurgical Plant’s tantalum production unit is the only enterprise in the former USSR capable of ensuring research, developing new technologies and producing the complete range of tantalum products, including ingots, chips, and rolled tantalum. There are plans to start production of high-capacity tantalum powder and wire for new generation capacitors in 2003.
Our company’s competitive advantage is that we can produce our own hydrofluoric acid - the main agent used for processing raw materials - as well as providing complete processing of various types of raw tantalum-niobium stock. The plant is capable of producing over 40,000 tonnes of hydrofluoric acid. Raw material supply is not a problem for Ulba Metallurgical Plant since it has its own mine containing unique fluorite spar deposits.
Introduction of New Technology
Of all the mining companies in Kazakhstan, Kazatomprom is the one that is turning rapidly from a pure raw materials producer into a company with a high proportion of high technology production facilities. Today, raw stock sales are already at or below 30% of the company’s total revenue. Over the last three years, the company has achieved production growth rates that are unprecedented in Kazakhstan, this is primarily attributable to policies of the company’s top management aimed at bringing new production facilities of high added value into operation and producing high quality products meeting the requirements of the world market. This has allowed Kazatomprom to gain a share of the world market and participate successfully in the global division of labour in the nuclear industry. The company is a member of the World Nuclear Association, WNFM (World Nuclear Fuel Market), and the Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre.
Since all production processes in the nuclear industry are science-intensive, the industry’s operations can only be effective with an adequate R&D base. Furthermore, the nuclear power complex can be a source of innovative developments for many related industries. Though Kazatomprom is a 100% export-oriented company, nuclear industry specialists would be quite capable of assisting in the development of new, more efficient solutions for metallurgical production, the chemical industry, oil refining, etc., if manufacturers were to show an interest in such cooperation.
Moreover, Kazatomprom could supply materials and ready-made products to the domestic market. These might include materials and products for oil well drilling (drill pipes, bits, and other copper-beryllium products), production of high-octane gasoline (tantalum catalysts to replace platinum ones), artificial limbs for medicine, sports equipment (rolled tantalum), etc. With this in view, the company is taking measures to establish ties with oil and gas companies, machinery manufacturers and mining companies operating in Kazakhstan.
Kazatomprom views the development of the high technology aspect in all production processes as the most rational and effective way of developing Kazakhstan’s nuclear industry.
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