Sauat Mynbayev, Kazakhstan's energy minister, questioned the need for the Central Asian country to maintain its world leadership in uranium production.

"We're already the top country in terms of output volume, but do we need this?" Mynbayev said during a government meeting in the capital Astana today.

"Our main task is to sell fuel, not uranium ore, or at least to sell the majority of our uranium in the form of fuel, processed as much as possible in Kazakhstan," he said. The country needs a "clear plan" to become a fuel exporter, he said in comments on the government's Web site.

Kazakhstan said in December it had become the world's biggest uranium producer last year, overtaking Canada and Australia. The former Soviet republic accounts for 15 percent of world uranium reserves. It planned to produce 13,900 metric tons of uranium in 2009, according to state-owned miner Kazatomprom.

Former Kazatomprom head Mukhtar Dzhakishev went on trial earlier this month, charged with stealing 99.8 million tenge ($674,100) during the opening of the company's representative office in Vienna.

Dzhakishev was ousted as Kazatomprom chief in May and later arrested on suspicion of embezzling state shares in uranium deposits, including one co-owned by Canada's Uranium One Inc., by transferring them to offshore companies, the National Security Committee said in May. An investigation into the charge is under way.

Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General's Office in November ordered a probe into video clips posted on YouTube of Dzhakishev answering investigators' questions. In the clips, Dzhakishev says his removal from Kazatomprom facilitated an alleged Russian strategy to block the company's plan to supply nuclear fuel to Japan, consigning Kazakhstan to the role of a supplier of raw materials.

Jan. 15 (Bloomberg)