*Kazakhstan aims to be world No.1 uranium exporter in 2009
*Mine to produce 3,000 tonnes uranium by 2014
*Output mostly destined for Japan
By Masha Gordeyeva
KHORASAN, Kazakhstan, April 24 (Reuters) - Japan opened a major uranium mine in Kazakhstan on Friday, gaining access to alternative energy supplies from resource-rich Central Asia.
Khorasan-1, tucked away in the arid steppes of southern Kazakhstan, is being developed by a group of Japanese firms including Toshiba Corp (6502.T), as well as Kazakh state uranium company Kazatomprom and a unit of Canada’s Uranium One UUU.TO.
On Friday, a delegation of Japanese executives, the head of Kazatomprom and other officials flew to the remote location for an official ceremony which marks Kazakhstan’s growing resolve to become the world’s top uranium exporter as soon as this year.
Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov pressed a symbolic button at the site, officially launching production.
Khorasan, with uranium reserves of more than 80,000 tonnes, will produce about 180 tonnes of the commodity this year and reach full capacity by 2014 when it is due to start yielding 3,000 tonnes of uranium a year.
Under the deal, about 2,000 tonnes will be shipped to Japan to fuel its nuclear power plants. The companies have invested about $430 million in the project so far.
Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic west of China, has a fifth of global uranium reserves. Its push to develop uranium is part of a broader strategy to diversify the economy which is heavily dependent on oil.
Cooperation with Japan also highlights its determination to pursue a foreign policy that is less dependent on Russia, currently its biggest trading and diplomatic partner.
Kazakhstan produced 8,521 tonnes of uranium last year, up from 6,637 in 2007, and plans to further increase output this year. Analysts say Kazatomprom is now on track to edge out Canada’s Cameco this year as the world’s No.1 uranium producer.
Kazatomprom has pursued its ambition to raise its profile as a global leader, buying 10 percent of Toshiba’s U.S.-based Westinghouse nuclear power unit and courting energy consumers such as Japan and neighbouring China. (Writing by Maria Golovnina, Editing by Peter Blackburn)