Human development cannot be separated from energy. The development path of any country is inextricably linked to the energy sector. Currently, there is a growing demand for inexpensive, safe, and clean energy all over the world. To address the challenges of global climate change, and energy crisis and meet the growing demand, countries are increasingly interested in nuclear energy.
Journalist A. Khaliun spoke with the Secretary of the Nuclear Energy Commission, G. Manlaijav.
Mongolian President U. Khurelsukh will visit France in October. Last May, The State Visit was paid for by the President of the French Republic, E. Macron last May, “The two sides agreed to facilitate and increase existing and future French investment in renewable energy.” According to this statement, there is an anticipation of signing the investment agreement on uranium mining during the President’s visit. Could you provide us with further information on the working group’s progress toward this agreement?
The Government of Mongolia has established a working group headed by the Minister of Justice and Home Affairs, H. Nyambaatar. The purpose of this group is to negotiate and finalize the draft investment agreement with the investor. We are working with national and international independent consulting services regarding this agreement. There has been a lot of criticism directed at the Oyutolgoi investment deal. Therefore, we are attempting to reach an advantageous investment arrangement within the parameters of the applicable legislation. The working group is divided into smaller groups focusing on municipal, legislative, financial, and environmental concerns.
What impact would the investment agreement have on the nation’s economy if it is implemented?
Mongolia needs foreign investment to expand its economy. In the mining industry, it is important to bring our uranium deposits into economic circulation. A significant amount of investment is required for the construction and operation of a plant-based on established reserves. Badrakh Energy LLC’s feasibility study was approved for the Zuuvch-Ovoo, Dulaan-Uul, and Umnut deposits, in 2015 and it is currently undergoing further amendments. The anticipated $1.6 billion total expenditure in the project comprises both the original investment and the investment necessary to ensure the facility will operate normally. Throughout the project’s 38-year lifespan, almost 70,000 tons of uranium will be generated. Mon-Atom LLC, a state-owned enterprise, owns 34% of Badrakh Energy LLC. It is estimated that the project would generate over 700 new employment and more than $1 billion in tax income for the nation. At the mining site, infrastructure will also be constructed, which will significantly aid in local development.
THE ZUUVCH-OVOO DEPOSIT IS ONE THE 10 LARGEST URANIUM DEPOSITS DISCOVERED IN THE WORLD OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS
Please provide us with details on uranium reserves and their current market value. What degree of price sensitivity is projected for the future?
The Zuuvch-Ovoo deposit, operated by Badrakh Energy LLC, is one of the 10 largest uranium deposits discovered in the world in the last 20 years. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development jointly produced the “Red Book” of Uranium, and it contains information that places Mongolia in tenth place globally in terms of the number of deposits with reserves of more than 4,000 tons. The United States, Australia, and Russia are at the top of the list. Demand for uranium continues to grow worldwide. As of 2020, the U.S. is the main supplier with 19,000 tons, followed by France with 7,300 tons and China with 7,000 tons. Between 1945 and 2021, 3.1 million tons of uranium were extracted globally in terms of mining. In recent years, Kazakhstan, Australia, Namibia, South Africa, and Canada have been leading in uranium extraction.
In general, the global demand for uranium is about 50-60 thousand tons per year and is expected to double in the future as nuclear energy production increases. Consequently, we are certain that our nation can succeed in this industry.
After the Fukushima accident in 2011, the market price of uranium fell to $60 and started to slowly rise again since 2018. As of September 2023, the price reached $150 per kg. The price is expected to increase, according to scientists and international research groups.
URANIUM IS A RAW MATERIAL OF STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE
If the investment agreement is signed, how will uranium mining be carried out?
With French investment, Badrakh Energy LLC holds 3 mining licenses for Zuuvch-Ovoo, Dulaan-Uul, and Umnut deposits in the Dornogobi aimag. Since July 2021, Badrakh Energy LLC has been extracting uranium using in-situ leaching technology at the Zuuvch-Ovoo pilot site, and as of May 2023, it extracted 27.5 tons of uranium concentrate (ammonium diuranate) containing 10.4 tons of uranium and is being stored.
The company began preparing for a pilot operation at the Zuuvch-Ovoo project site in 2017 after the findings of testing that began in 2021 made it obvious what the technical requirements were for full utilization of the two deposits.
How will uranium be exported if mining begins?
The Mongolian Government’s policy on radioactive minerals and nuclear energy stipulates that uranium ore cannot be exported. Therefore, it will be exported in the form of processed yellow cake. This concept is similar to exporting washed coal instead of raw coal. Uranium ore is enriched in a concentrator to produce uranium oxide (U3O8) containing about 80% uranium, or yellow cake. The resulting uranium oxide is yellow, orange, dark green, or another dark color depending on the solution and drying temperature. Since the beginning, it has been called “yellow cake” because of the color and characteristics observed during uranium mining. Generally speaking, uranium oxide can have a variety of colors.
How many tons of uranium reserves have been confirmed at the Zuuvch-Ovoo deposit?
If the Zuuvch-Ovoo deposit is at full capacity, its production capacity will be 2,500-3,000 tons of uranium per year. Although this is not a large figure, it presents an opportunity that Mongolia could become one of the players in the global uranium market.
The French state group Orano has been working in the nation since 1996 in the field of radioactive minerals and has discovered three deposits (with geological reserves of about 105 thousand tons of uranium) in Ulaanbadrakh soum of Dornogobi aimag: Zuuvch-Ovoo, Dulaan-Uul, and Umnut. The Badrakh Energy LLC has held licenses for the use of radioactive minerals for twenty years since 2015.
More than 50 countries in the world are involved in the uranium production cycle, and a total of 5,234 uranium deposits have been registered. Of course, these countries need to create a uranium production system with minimal impact on human health and the environment. As of Mongolia, the Government approved the technical regulations for the underground mining of acid-leached uranium in 2015-2022 and the regulation on safe transport of radioactive materials. Also, the Nuclear Energy Commission approved Basic Safety Standards, Mongolia’s Basic Radiation Protection and Safety Regulations, Regulation on the management of radioactive waste from mining and milling of ores, Radiation safety regulation for exploration and research of radioactive minerals, and Radiation safety regulation on mining and milling of radioactive mineral. We have rules, regulations, and standards that are required for activities related to radioactive minerals at a national level.
So, at what level is uranium resource explored, in our country? What percentage of the total explored resources is occupied by the Zuuvch-Ovoo deposit?
Zuuvch-Ovoo, Dulaan-Uul, and Umnut are three deposits that the French state group Orano has identified in the Ulaanbadrakh soum of the Dornogobi aimag. These deposits have geological reserves of around 105 thousand tons of uranium. Since 2015, The Badrakh Energy LLC has become the holder of permits for the use of radioactive materials for 20 years.
There are 192,000 tons of uranium reserves registered with the Mongolian Mineral Resources Council. If we expand exploration, the reserves may increase to one million tons.
What are the advantages of nuclear energy? What is the level of research on the use of nuclear energy in our country?
Nuclear energy has several benefits over coal and natural gas, including the absence of greenhouse gas emissions, the ability to produce large amounts of energy from small amounts of fuel in a short amount of time, the ability to reliably supply energy regardless of the time of year, and relatively low operating costs after the construction of the plant. In 2009, the Nuclear Energy Law was ratified. Also in 2009, the State Policy of Mongolia on Exploitation of Radioactive Minerals was enacted and its implementation plan was approved. The purpose of the state policy of Mongolia on the exploitation of radioactive minerals and nuclear energy is to deeply explore radioactive minerals resources. Some research on the use of nuclear energy had been started before the Fukushima accident, but it was halted thereafter.
In recent years, countries have shown increased interest in nuclear energy to address climate change and meet constantly growing energy needs. To study the possibility of use of nuclear power in Mongolia, a working group was established under a joint order of the Ministers of Energy, Education and Science, and Mining and Heavy Industry.
What lessons have countries learned from the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant?
An incident occurred at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. Countries changed their nuclear programs in response, raising the bar on technical safety. As a consequence, all 480 active nuclear reactors in the globe underwent inspection. Reactor safety was enhanced by the shutdown of certain of them. Costs rise in tandem with safety improvements. It took 15 years, until the beginning of September 2023, for Finland’s nuclear power station with an EPR reactor to be put into operation. The price of newly constructed plants has gone up 10% to 15%. Recently, Generation 3+ plants have been under construction. The Fukushima reactor, built in the early 1970s, was Generation 1+ and Generation
2. There are now automated plants with dual technical controls, operating without human intervention. The most modern Generation IV nuclear power plants have many advantages such as high economic efficiency, and increased safety. They produce less waste, and their design doesn’t allow the spread of radioactive materials in the environment even in case of an accident.
Who produces the most uranium explosives in the world? A country that sells uranium, according to some, ought to also take back its nuclear waste. Can you offer some insights on this?
As of 2021, annually 48.3 thousand tons of uranium was produced globally. Kazakhstan has led uranium mining over the past ten years with a yearly production of 21 thousand tons, followed by Australia and Namibia.
The nuclear fuel cycle occurs in the following order: uranium mining, conversion, isotopic enrichment, fuel production, nuclear chain reaction in reactors to generate energy, reprocessing of spent fuel, and waste disposal.
Several high-tech nations, including the USA, Russia, China, France, and Japan, perform the subsequent step after producing yellow cake. There are no international arrangements anywhere in the world on the return of spent fuel from nuclear power plants as well as waste from the reprocessing of spent fuel to the country that exported the yellow cake. The Executive Office held a training session with the IAEA specialists in June to put a stop to this situation and to clarify it for individuals and non-governmental organizations that were disseminating misleading information.
What are the international agreements and treaties that Mongolia has ratified regarding the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons?
Mongolia joined the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1969 and the Application of Safeguards in Connection with the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1972. Also, Mongolia signed the additional protocol of the Application of Safeguards in Connection with the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons established between the Government of Mongolia and the IAEA In 2003.
By joining these agreements, Mongolia guarantees the peaceful use of nuclear materials and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, provides the IAEA with information on the quantity, location, movement of nuclear materials, and nuclear research and development activities within the timeframe specified in the agreement, and commits to not transferring any nuclear material to countries that are not parties to the Treaty for the Application of Safeguards concerning the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In case of incorrect information, IAEAv inspectors have the full right to visit the country and conduct an inspection. Mongolia is responsible for providing the inspectors with unhindered access to the inspection sites and sharing the necessary information with them.
What industry uses nuclear technology the most in our nation?
Nuclear technology is employed in healthcare, diagnostics, agriculture, education, science, environment, mining, industry, and other fields in Mongolia.
Thank you for your time.