By Joanna Lillis*
(Eurasianet) — Kazakhstan’s state-owned nuclear company has delivered a batch of uranium to Canada via the Middle Corridor, a transport route that is in growing demand as exporters seek to bypass sanctions-hit Russia.
Kazatomprom “announces it has completed a physical delivery of natural uranium using the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR),” the company reported last month.
The TITR is the official name of a route from China to Europe that entails crossing the Caspian Sea, loading goods onto trains and trucks in Azerbaijan and sending them onward to Georgia and Turkey.
This was not the first time Kazatomprom had used the Middle Corridor.
It “has successfully used the TITR as an alternative route for delivering Kazatomprom’s material to western customers since 2018, helping to mitigate the risk of the primary route through St. Petersburg being unavailable, for any reason,” the company explained.
But international sanctions against Kazakhstan’s northern neighbor is a primary motivation for turning to the Middle Corridor now, the statement made clear.
“Kazatomprom continues to monitor the growing list of sanctions on Russia and the potential impact they could have on the transportation of products through Russian territory,” it said.
“To date, there are no restrictions on the company’s activities related to the supply of its products to customers worldwide.”
Part of the uranium batch was supplied by Kazatomprom itself, and part came from Inkai, a joint venture between the company and Canadian nuclear firm Cameco, which owns a 40 percent stake in Inkai.
The shipment took months to reach an unspecified Canadian port, travelling via the Georgian port of Poti.
Freight traffic along the Middle Corridor increased exponentially following the imposition of stringent sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, which have made companies leery of the shorter northern route to ports in the European Union.
In the first nine months of 2022, the volume of goods transiting along the Middle Corridor almost tripled compared to the same period in 2021. Kazakhstan increased its own exports along this path eightfold, according to the association of the TITR.
But the route is plagued by bottlenecks, constrained by limited capacity of key infrastructure like railways, seaports, transshipment hubs and roads. The problem affects not just Kazakhstan, but other countries along the Middle Corridor too.
In a recent interview with Eurasianet, Gaidar Abdikerimov, the secretary-general of the TITR association, described limitations in the infrastructure of Azerbaijan and Georgia as the route’s main “bottleneck.” The lack of locations at which to load and unload cargo ships and congestion along train routes cause chronic delays, he said.
Kazakhstan also plans to start exporting a small amount of its oil, the bulk of which is shipped abroad via Russia, through the Middle Corridor this year.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.