MongolianMiningJournal /March 2023. № 003 (172)./
By D.Oyunchimeg Interviewed Marc Meleard, executive director of “Badrakh Energy” company about Zuuvch-Ovoo project, the most advanced uranium project in Mongolia.
- Badrakh Energy company completed a uranium production pilot test in Ulaanbadrakh soum of Dornogobi aimag. There are always various allegation and rumors about your company around people and animals being poisoned since uranium is radioactive substance. Can you provide clear information about this project?
- First of all, it is best to explain what uranium is as a radioactive mineral. Our company will mine natural uranium.
There is nothing comparable between natural radioactivity generated from natural uranium and radioactivity coming from nuclear fuel to generate energy. Therefore, I see this as a deliberate or unintentional spreading of confusing information, using differences of radioactivity from natural uranium and from enriched uranium. Actually, it is possible to stop radioactivity from natural uranium with a single sheet of paper. For example, it is understood people working in our company site can be said to be the most exposed to radioactivity. As per the Nuclear Energy Law, employees working with radioactive minerals are regularly monitored to assess their professional exposure. The average professional exposure dose accumulated for one year is equivalent to the natural exposure you receive when flying seven times between Ulaanbaatar and Paris, i.e. that’s very low exposure. Therefore, inadequate understanding about radioactive substances is creating misunderstandings. . That’s why we are committed to providing accurate information regularly to the public.
It has been 26 years since Areva, currently the Orano group, has been operating in Mongolia. During this period, we conducted two pilot tests in 2010 and 2021. During our operations, our company has never faced any accidents or disasters related to exploration activities and neither to pilot test operations. This includes continuous 1000 days of operations to date This indicates the reliability of our ISR technology and the professionalism of our teams.
-How is the investment agreement proceeding?
-Our company delivered a draft investment agreement proposal on 17th February as required by law. The next step is the appointment by the Mongolian government of a working group to conduct negotiations.
Our project is strategically important for Mongolia. Specifically, it will be the first investment agreement since Oyu Tolgoi over the past five years. As the project is implemented by two state owned companies, we are talking about the partnership agreement between two governments. The Zuuvch-Ovoo project is a long-time partnership spanning more than 50 years and is the largest project implemented from the side of the European Union.
-You emphasize that it is strategically important project. So you need to improve public understanding to gain public acceptance. What should be done to give accurate, objective understanding about uranium and radioactive substances to the public?
-Our project is ranked in first row of uranium extraction projects i.e it is a most advanced uranium project. Although the Zuuvch-Ovoo project is the first project in Mongolia that uses ISR technology, this has been used since the 1950s. The Orano group has long experience with this technology which is now the main one used to extract uranium in the world, Kazakhstan alone provides 40% of global uranium supply using this technology. Thus, implement this project with our long experience will set best international standards in Mongolia.
As uranium is leached and extracted underground, ordinary people do not see what is going on there. Therefore, we need to explain the details and distribute educational information about hydrogeology, uranium and radioactive substances..
Research studies which has very important impact for our company operations will be completed in 2023. Before our pilot test operation started, the Academy of Sciences of Mongolia conducted an independent assessment of our operations. Now they are going to commission the same evaluation after the pilot test completion. Objective conclusions about whether natural environment, human and livestock animal health are affected during our mining and treatment operation will be made. The results of three previous studies indicate that animal health in the local area was better than the national prevalence of animal diseases and unnatural mortality rates.
It will be important that the conclusions of this independent assessment are communicated to the authorities and public.
- On the Zuuvch-Ovoo deposit will be built a mine and treatment plant of annual capacity of 2500 tons uranium. How do you see the positive impact on economy and society when production is at full capacity? Especially how this contributes to local development?
- The positive impacts oon Mongolia can be seen from many angles. The investment agreement clearly includes the anticipated economic benefits when this project is at full capacity. More understandable and clear information will come. . However, it is estimated that the benefit for the Mongolian State will be valued at one billion dollars over the lifetime of the deposit.
One million dollars per year will be dedicated to local social and economic development. Currently, the Minerals Law is to be updated. I understand that some portion of the royalty payment will be dedicated to local development depending on what the law decides.
The feasibility study update includes the size of the required workforce for implementation.. Badrakh Energy plan to create 800 jobs, with another 800 jobs generated through contractors, subcontractors. So, approximately 1600 stable jobs will be created during the project’s lifetime.
-Mining companies must do remediation of natural environment simultaneously with mining and production. What are your plans on this? Also it is said that your company will grow/ plant five million trees under the framework of the “billion tree” program.
-Our company joined the “billion tree” national program and pledged to plant and five million trees during the main production period. Currently, we have planted 17,000 trees. You can see from our tree planting area that we are really working enthusiastically under a framework of the social responsibility. Planting local species of plants means that they are more adaptable to the natural environment and flourish better.
In terms of remediation, it is easier for us compared to others operating conventional mines because we are not extracting any ore. Thus, we do not excavate big pits ’and accumulate any tailings to remediate. When restoration , happens, all facilities, pipes and wells will be removed from the land and aquifer remediation will also be performed to revert the environment to its initial characteristics.
-The public usually expects construction of a town with mine development. So will there be an urban settlement established along with the Zuuvch-Ovoo project?
-Our camp and deposit are located 50 km away from Ulaanbadrakh soum of Dornogobi aimag. According to the newly amended labor law, teams have to work at the mine under a 14/14 roster schedule. If we have to develop an urban settlement, the closest soum is Ulaanbadrakh, requiring 100 km travel every day to come and go from the mine site. This is not really convenient for workers or consistent with efficient industrial organization.
On the other hand, since we are operating in the local community, our company is committed to long-term soum and local development. We have also included this commitment in the FS update. We are studying different options to support economic development, for instance by relocating different works and services that do not have to be at the mine site to the soum center.. Also some of our contractors can be settled in Ulaanbadrakh instead of at the mine site. That would improve Soum development more widely.
-Physicists say yellow cake is turned into nuclear energy fuel. Is there the possibility for Mongolia to develop a nuclear plant once your production is operating at full capacity?
-About 30 countries worldwide are using nuclear energy. It is up to decision by the Mongolian government on whether the state acquires a nuclear power station. France has experience of development of nuclear energy for more than 70 years. Therefore, if Mongolia decides to have nuclear power station, France would be pleased to provide expertise. Research in the nuclear sector is improving and reactors from the last generation, suitable for Mongolia are under development. For example, one Small Modular Reactor (SMR) can supply all the power and heating needs of the capital. The most challenging problem faced by residents of UB is air pollution. Nuclear power eliminates air pollution and its negative health impacts.
Nuclear energy is also considered most reliable as its output is constant. Besides, there is international experience of developing renewable and nuclear energy sources together, so that nuclear power is used when renewables aren’t producing enough energy. So, but both contribute to fighting global warming and carbon emissions.
Of course, the deposits mined by our joint company is a good opportunity to improve energy independence for Mongolia. Although there are thermal stations in Mongolia, they are ageing. Mongolia is importing 20% of its electrical and energy needs. This is a lot and the discovery of uranium deposits, and their development is a step towards energy independence.