Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan’s High-tech Nuclear Driving Force
One Kazakh company has been carving itself a niche in the world of uranium production lately. Over recent years the National Atomic Energy Company Kazatomprom has demonstrated its stability and profitability against a background of intensive expansion of its production activities. The company’s management and experts have not only re-orientated capabilities that were intended to serve the Soviet military-industrial complex, but have also begun to develop their own unique technological methods.
New outlook and opportunities
At present, 100% of Kazatomprom’s products are being exported, despite the scope that exists for the company to supply some materials to the domestic market. However, sales of raw materials contribute only 30% of the company’s revenue. Out of all the mining companies in Kazakhstan, Kazatomprom is the only one to have undergone such a rapid transformation from a mere mining and company into an organization with a high proportion of high-tech production.
This year Kazatomprom celebrates its sixth anniversary. However, the company’s history can be traced back to the 1940s, when it was part of the USSR nuclear programme. A combination of strong traditions and wide experience, coupled with the technological and administrative innovations of recent times, have in many respects led to the company’s impressive achievements of today.
The company’s current policy is to encourage the introduction of new added-value products. Another priority is to ensure that the quality of the products satisfies all customer requirements. In order to meet these objectives, the company is considering increasing high-tech component manufacture. Attaining these goals would be beneficial both for industry on a global scale and for the country’s economy.
Since 1997, Kazatomprom has been designated as a National Export/Import Organization for Uranium and Other Dual-Use Materials. The company is a member of the World Nuclear Association, the World Nuclear Fuel Market (WNFM), and the Tantalum Niobium Association. The company’s quality system has been certified by RW TUV-CERT in accordance with ISO-9002 requirements.
Kazatomprom is now one of the four largest uranium producers in the world and is confident of joining the top three producers in the sector relatively soon. This confidence is based on the fact that 19% of world uranium resources are found in Kazakhstan (the second largest concentration of resources in the world). In addition, the company is continuing to grow in terms of its scientific and technological potential. Utilization of the in-situ leaching method (ISL) allows access to more than 70% of the discovered deposits of uranium, which are estimated at 900,000 tonnes of reserves. This method has demonstrated the high profitability of the mines, it is ecologically friendly, and eliminates direct human involvement in the production process.
Kazatomprom is currently developing 7 deposits using the ISL method. The explored reserves of these deposits—Uvanas, Eastern Mynkuduk, Kanjugan, Southern Moinkum, Northern and Southern Karamurun, and Akdala—are estimated at 117,000 tonnes. Work at three of the deposits began within the past three years. In 2002, the annual production volume was 2,800 tonnes, which is 3 times the production level of 1998.
Last year JV Katko jointly with Cogema (France), and JV Inkai with Cameco (Canada) started operating in Kazakhstan. In 2002 these joint ventures produced approximately 120 tonnes of uranium; however, in the future their planned capacity should reach 2,000 tonnes. Another joint venture was created with the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry to develop the Zarechnoye deposit. Negotiations are in process with Japan over their involvement in the joint development project for the Irkol deposit, and with China to develop the Zhalpak deposit. The potential production of these ventures could total as much as 1,750 tonnes.
More significant uranium resources are concentrated in Central Mynkuduk (81,000 tonnes) and Kharasan (59,000 tonnes), but have not as yet been developed; there is also a part of the Inkai deposit that is not included in the contract between Kazatomprom and Cameco (this deposit’s reserves estimated to be at 174,000 tonnes), also the unique Budenovskoye deposit with predicted reserves of 350,000 tonnes. Kazakhstan’s natural resources do indeed demonstrate significant potential for the future of the nuclear power.
Traditions and innovations
The scientific arm of Kazatomprom deserves a separate account. Just in terms of its own value and importance, the company ranks above all the other national and private companies in Kazakhstan, since all production in the nuclear industry is highly science-intensive. Therefore Kazatomprom gives strong and adequate support to its research and development activities. Also, the achievements of the nuclear power industry often find applications in many other branches of the economy.
Human resources are undoubtedly the main source of wealth for any organization or country. Kazatomprom has done its best to retain and increase its invaluable human potential. The Kazakh nuclear industry once faced all the difficulties caused by the dissolution of the USSR and the breaching of former economic and collaborative links. A shutdown of production could have resulted in the loss of the country’s unique scientific and technical potential and staff, badly damaging the international reputation of the Republic of Kazakhstan. To avoid that, the state and the nuclear industry leaders did their best to prevent companies in the Kazakh nuclear sector from having to face the writing on the wall. Thanks to support from the government they survived, and subsequently the situation improved. Thus, over the last four years NAC Kazatomprom has been experiencing an unprecedented rate of growth in its production volumes.
The company incorporates several ventures that have been consolidated into three complementary divisions. The first deals with natural uranium production. It consists of three ore administrations and three joint ventures producing uranium. The geologists at OJSC Volkovgeologia started their work in Kazakhstan in 1947, and today they provide the exploration expertise for new uranium deposits.
The second division is represented by the Mangistau Nuclear Power Station (MNPS Kazatomprom), which provides western Kazakhstan with water, heat and electricity. This company owns the world’s first fast breeder reactor, currently being decommissioned.
The third complex, involving production, is represented by the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (UMP) and the Kazakh-Russian-Ukrainian JV UKR TVS.
UMP (located in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Eastern Kazakhstan and commissioned in 1949) includes units to produce fuel pellets for nuclear power plants, and a variety of tantalum, niobium, and beryllium products. The company used to be concerned only with fulfilling specialized military orders. After the Republic of Kazakhstan signed the Non-Proliferation Protocol, the plant re-orientated all its technological facilities to the manufacture of non-military products.
Kazatomprom is the major supplier of fuel pellets to all kinds of Russian nuclear reactors, and is also a certified supplier of low-enrichment uranium dioxide powder for General Electric. Kazatomprom is able to produce fuel pellets and uranium dioxide powder for light water reactors or Candu reactors, which may be required in the future by western companies. The technology used by Kazatomprom enables virtually all kinds of uranium-bearing materials to be processed.
One of the most important materials used in nuclear facilities is beryllium. The use of beryllium products in the nuclear, aerospace, electronic and oil industries is extending due to its unique properties. However, despite these qualities, beryllium production at UMP was shut down in 1992 due to a lack of international orders.
1997 to 2001, Kazatomprom performed major marketing and organizational campaigns to overcome the beryllium crisis. Shortly afterwards UMP’s beryllium production was completely restored and certified, and two new production lines were introduced. New products, such as carbothermal master alloys and copper-beryllium (up to 2%) constitute 70% of the beryllium market.
Tantalum and niobium production at the Ulba Metallurgical Plant (one of the largest plants in Kazakhstan) deserves special mention. The current rapid development of electronics has resulted in a high demand for tantalum powder on the world market. Tantalum is used for capacitors, which are the basis of microchips used in computers, cellular phones and other devices. This sector alone consumes some 70% of the world tantalum production.
The UMP Tantalum plant performs in-house scientific research, develops new technology and produces a whole range of tantalum products (bars, chips, rolled) and related niobium products. This is the only plant with such facilities that is currently operating in former Soviet territory. This year Kazatomprom plans to launch the production of high-capacitance tantalum powders and wire for the new generation of capacitors.
The company’s main competitive advantages are the production of its own hydrofluoric acid (the major reagent for the decomposition of raw materials), and the ability to perform complex processing of various kinds of tantalum and niobium bearing materials. The hydrofluoric acid production capacity is over 40,000 tonnes per year. Kazatomprom owns a unique fluorspar deposit, which is used in production of the acid.
Using the potential accumulated during the Soviet period, and its decisive and highly-coordinated organization and administration, Kazatomprom has retained and enlarged its science-intensive high-tech production capability, something that only a few countries possess. For example, full cycle beryllium production exists only in Kazakhstan, the USA and China; and in Japan, Germany, the USA, and China for tantalum. The number of countries providing nuclear fuel cycle services is also limited - Russia, the USA, France, Great Britain, China, Canada, Belgium, Sweden and South Korea.
Kazatomprom is a stable and reliable company that allows its shareholders and partners to feel confident and secure about their own future. The company has established new and higher standards of corporate management that are appropriate to the company’s high international rating and reputation.
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