Mongolia’s rich uranium potential


In the context of Mongolia’s rich uranium deposits, President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh’s longstanding endorsement of nuclear power appears to be generating geopolitical interest in Beijing. Khurelsukh and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in July 2021 to continue enhancing strategic relations, including in the mining industry.

If a shift to cleaner technologies as part of Mongolia’s Vision 2050 involves leveraging its uranium endowment towards producing nuclear energy, Ulaanbaatar appears to be facing a difficult choice between either Russia or China for developmental expertise.

The potential for China, in particular, to step up Mongolia’s development of a domestic nuclear industry comes at a time when China is expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal near the China–Mongolia border. 

In July 2021, analysts revealed that China appears to be constructing nuclear silos in Western China, including in Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia. These silos are in close proximity to some of the richest uranium deposits in the world on the Mongolian side of the border. Independent experts suggest that this project could represent the biggest expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal yet. 

After the Cold War, Ulaanbataar unilaterally declared itself a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) at the United Nations: An individual, legal person or any foreign State shall be prohibited on the territory of Mongolia from committing, initiating, or participating in the following acts or activities relating to nuclear weapons:

1) developing, manufacturing, or otherwise acquiring, possessing, or having control over nuclear weapons;

2) stationing or transporting nuclear weapons by any means;

3) dumping or disposing nuclear weapons-grade radioactive material or nuclear waste.

Transportation through the territory of Mongolia of nuclear weapons, parts, or components thereof, as well as of nuclear waste or any other nuclear material designed or produced for weapons purposes shall be prohibited.

Now, with severe air quality issues plaguing the capital due to coal and wood burning, and as the country focuses attention on climate targets and maintaining energy security, domestic debate is ramping up over the potential for nuclear technology, and for China to assist in the development of uranium mines and fission plants. 

In 2011, Tsogtshaikhan Gombo, deputy chairman of state-owned uranium mining company MonAtom, announced that Mongolia aims to have its first nuclear power plant running by 2020. 

This never materialised but, in his previous role as prime minister, Khurelsukh was keen to progress the construction of nuclear power plants. In 2019 an informal understanding was reached with the then Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev that Russia would help facilitate its development. 

An agreement was also reached between the state-owned Russian atomic energy corporation Rosatom and the Nuclear Energy Commission of Mongolia to build a centre for nuclear capacity-building in 2018, although development has not yet begun. The International Atomic Energy Agency also sent a mission to Mongolia to share tips on sound nuclear management. This was followed by recent statements from Dr. Teghsbayar, a member of MonAtom, that Mongolia possesses the uranium reserves required for mining and exporting, but also for producing nuclear energy.

Russia is examining the feasibility of building nuclear power plants in Mongolia. The State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom and Nuclear Energy commission of Mongolia signed Memorandum of cooperation on Centre of Nuclear Science and Technology (CNST) construction in 2018. According to the document, Russian specialists will provide assistance to the Mongolian side in determining preliminary requirements and the configuration of CNST facilities. The Memorandum framework also involves the two sides designing a preliminary road map for the CNST project.

The Nuclear Energy Agency has tentative plans for developing nuclear power, using either Korean Smart reactors or Toshiba 4S types, from 2021. Three sites under consideration are Ulaan Baatar, western Mongolia and Dornod province.

Now, increasingly close ties with Beijing may mean Mongolia could instead turn to China to develop its nuclear industry. Mongolia’s financial position means the country is unlikely to build nuclear power plants over the next decade, let alone develop uranium mining sites, without significant outside assistance.

Considering pledges made at COP26 and the trend in funding away from fossil fuels, global powers appear increasingly interested in opportunities to invest in the development of nuclear capability with international partners as a bilateral bargaining chip — particularly border countries rich in uranium. 

Khurelsukh has to position himself strategically for difficult decisions ahead — balancing Mongolia’s developmental interests without undermining the nation’s values in the global non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.


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