China boasts of 'world-class' uranium deposit discovery, but experts wary
Nuclear industry experts remain wary of China's grand claims for the Inner Mongolia reserve, saying there have been exaggerations in the past
China announced the discovery of a "world-class" uranium deposit in Inner Mongolia yesterday but kept its exact size a secret.
Some nuclear industry experts said the secrecy could be a deliberate government strategy to add to its bargaining power in negotiations to buy uranium mines in other countries.
The reserve, although the largest of its kind in China, could be small by world standards and insufficient to meet the country's growing demand for uranium given that it is building the world's largest network of nuclear power plants, they said.
Xinhua said it was found in the Daying area, in central Inner Mongolia.
"It is a world-class reserve. It will significantly help the increase of domestic, independent supply," the report, quoting the Ministry of Land and Resources, said. But Professor Jiao Yangquan , the chief scientist of the project, from China University of Geosciences in Wuhan , refused to confirm the "world-class" claim.
"I am not allowed to discuss the size of the reserve," he said.
Jiao led a research team on the site and reported the estimated size of the reserve to senior land ministry officials in July, the university's website said.
Neither the ministry nor its Central Geological Exploration Fund, which funded the project, responded to inquiries.
Some foreign and domestic experts doubted the "world-class" claim, saying China was known as a country with low uranium reserves and that status was not going to be changed by the discovery of a few uncertain sites.
A sales manager with a major foreign uranium trading company in Beijing said the last time China announced the discovery of a "world-class" and "mega-sized" deposit, in Yili in Xinjiang , the actual reserve turned out to be only about 10,000 tonnes.
"I don't think the find in Inner Mongolia will be much bigger this time, partly because the government has a record of exaggeration," he said.
According to the World Nuclear Association, China had reserves of 171,000 tonnes in 2009, only a tenth of Australia's and three per cent of the world total.
It produced 1,500 tonnes last year, while Kazakhstan produced almost 20,000 tonnes. Gu Zhongmao , the deputy director of the China Institute of Atomic Energy's scientific board, said there had been embarrassing exaggerations of uranium reserves in the past with "over-optimistic" claims.
"Most of the uranium reserves that have been nailed with certainty in China are small, of low quality and costly to excavate," Gu said. "That's why Chinese companies are actively seeking to buy uranium mines all over the world. Uranium is [a] non-recoverable resource and the more we can import the better. I don't think that policy will change.
"But any news of large domestic reserves will certainly help as leverage in buyout bargaining."
Coal mines near uranium deposits spoiling value of nuclear fuel
Experts say many coal and uranium deposits are co-located and that extraction of the fossil fuel first is ruining the value of the nuclear fuel
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Huge newly discovered reserves of much-needed uranium are in danger of being destroyed amid a row over digging it up.
And as China's nuclear and coal sectors battle over the sites where the radioactive heavy metal lies buried, experts say the uranium is accidentally ending up in coal-fired power stations - creating radioactive ash that is falling on surrounding cities.
One Canadian firm that declined to be interviewed has built a plant near one coal-fired power station in Yunnan to collect the uranium from the ash.
With the world's largest number of nuclear power plants under construction, China is in desperate need of uranium ore to fuel them.
Currently, domestic supply is limited to some low-grade mines formed by ancient volcano eruptions in southern and central provinces such as Sichuan and Hunan. However, state geologists now believe there could be tens of thousands of tons of uranium in the basins of northern China.
The deposits in Ili in Xinjiang and Erdos in Inner Mongolia were described as "world-class" and "mega-sized" in recent reports by state media.
The problem is these rich veins of uranium are buried between thick belts of coal.
Song Xuebin, former head of China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC)'s 821 Factory that produces uranium fuel, has filed a complaint with the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
He alleged the coal mines were encroaching on the uranium deposits. "These basins contained oil, gas, coal and uranium," he wrote. "Due to its large scale and high speed of construction, coal mining will soon bring huge destruction to uranium resources. It will also cause the environment to suffer radioactive pollution."
Professor Gu Zhongmao, of the China Institute of Atomic Energy and a top adviser to CNNC, said that balancing the interests of the two different energy sectors was proving a headache for the central government.
In the mean time, the government has been importing as much uranium as possible from countries such as Kazakhstan and Australia, while apparently leaving the domestic deposits for future use.
"The problem is that if we leave those deposits there, they will soon be destroyed by coal mining," warned Gu. "It is not unlikely that the bulk of Chinese uranium reserves end up in the furnaces of coal-fired power plants instead of in nuclear reactors.
"When that happens, the enormous amount of radioactive ash becomes a threat to everyone's safety," he said.
The environmental hazards caused by radioactive ash has been kept quiet.
Yin Lianqing, environment professor at North China Electric Power University, said that he conducted some tests in a few cities to monitor the radiation levels in neighbourhoods near coal-fired power plants, and got alarming results.
"We have found some instances of very high exposure, hundreds of times higher than what you would expect near a nuclear power plant. I asked the cities' environmental protection authorities to take immediate measures to reduce residents' exposure, such as adding dust-removing devices to the power plants, but they demanded I keep my mouth shut, or I would be held responsible for causing social panic."
It was the presence of high levels of uranium in coal that led to the discovery of the rich seams of uranium. In 2003, the Ministry of Science and Technology funded a national research project led by professor Liu Chiyang of the Northwest University in Xian, Shaanxi, to solve the mystery.
The research was deemed crucial to China's national security, and accordingly many researchers involved in the project, including Liu, declined to be interviewed by the SCMP.
According to a 2006 paper published in the mainland academic journal Oil and Gas Geology, Liu's team confirmed that nearly all the uranium and coal deposits in north China had formed at the same time. The researchers came up with several theories to explain the co-location phenomenon.