Uzbekistan seeks public support for atomic power

Graphic of planned Uzbek nuclear power plant Image copyright Uzbek TV/YouTube
Image caption For now the plant exists only in TV graphics

Some Uzbeks are questioning a poll that shows strong support for plans to build the first-ever nuclear power plant in the earthquake-prone country.

Jo'rabek Mirzamahmudov, the director of the Uzatom state agency, says 70% of respondents back the joint nuclear project with Russia according to "preliminary poll data".

He told reporters that most of the people questioned "had not been aware of plans to build the plant but, when they had the basic principles explained to them, 70% spoke in favour of it", the Kun.uz news site reports.

The Ijtimoiy Fikr polling agency often works closely with the authorities, but has not yet published any details of the ongoing survey on its site.

Uzbekistan is pressing ahead with plans to build the water-cooled power station at Lake Tuzkan on the edge of the Kyzylkum desert, as part of an ambitious programme of diversifying its energy sources.

Image copyright Uzatom
Image caption Seismic survey work has begun at Lake Turkan

It relies on coal, gas, oil and imports of hydro-electric power from Tajikistan at present, and these will not enough to meet the needs of its growing population.

Russia's Rosatom nuclear energy agency has agreed to supply two reactors, and the $11bn-dollar (£8.7bn) plant - due to be commissioned by 2028 - is expected to generate 15% of Uzbekistan's energy requirement.

It helps that the country is also a major uranium producer.

'Raw memories'

The authoritarian government of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is anxious to rally public support for its plan, not least because the broader nuclear issue is possibly even more controversial in Central Asia than elsewhere.

Memories are still raw of Soviet-era weapons tests that contaminated large tracts of eastern Kazakhstan and gave birth to "Nevada-Semipalatinsk", the Soviet Union's first anti-nuclear movement.

Image copyright Uzatom/YouTube
Image caption Nuclear power conquers children's TV

And there's the ever-present concern about the seismic fault lines that lace Central Asia.

There are plenty of people who still remember the earthquakes that devastated the capitals of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in 1948 and 1966 respectively.

With this in mind, Uzatom has made sure the official media have given wide coverage to seismic surveys around Lake Turkan and a safety seminar with the International Atomic Energy Agency, all to ensure that the power station will not be built in a fault zone.

Mr Mirzamahmudov also assured the public that the waters of Turkan will be "safe enough to swim in" when the power station is built.

Even children's TV has run a cartoon called Kuvvat (Power), in which a friendly robot explains the benefits of going nuclear to a pair of eager siblings.

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Not everyone is convinced, and some Uzbeks have decided to carry out their own informal polling.

The popular satirical blogger Troll.uz has run a survey on Facebook that shows 61% of the 6,600 participants against the idea - many agree there is a need for more power-generation, but want to explore alternatives to the atomic option.

'Millions will benefit'

One opponent suggests he would change his mind only if "Uzatom staff bring their families to live near the plant once it's commissioned".

But about 39% of the Facebook users polled still support the nuclear plan and the energy stability it promises.

"Only people in the capital Tashkent who don't suffer power cuts in the winter or summer are against it, as opposed to the millions who will benefit from heat and light," one participant says.

Image copyright ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Russia's Vladimir Putin and President Mirziyoyev press the project start button

Reporting by Elbek Daniyarov and Martin Morgan

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