Even Mongolia may Turn Radioactive

 The Obama administration has held informal talks with Mongolia about the possibility that the Central Asian nation might host an international repository for its region’s spent nuclear fuel, a senior U.S. diplomat said yesterday.U.S. Energy Department officials and their counterparts in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, are in the early stages of discussion and there has been no determination yet about whether to proceed with the idea, according to Richard Stratford, who directs the State Department’s Nuclear Energy, Safety and Security Office.  Speaking at the biennial Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Stratford said a spent-fuel depot in the region could be of particular value to Taiwan and South Korea, which use nuclear power but have few options when it comes to disposing of atomic waste.

“If Mongolia were to do that, I think that would be a very positive step forward in terms of internationalizing spent-fuel storage,” he said during a panel discussion on nuclear cooperation agreements. “My Taiwan and South Korean colleagues have a really difficult time with spent fuel. And if there really was an international storage depot, which I have always supported, then that would help to solve their problem.”

Stratford is Washington’s lead envoy for nuclear trade pacts, which are sometimes called “123 agreements” after the section of the Atomic Energy Act that governs them.The United States provides fresh uranium rods to selected trade partners in Asia, including South Korea and Taiwan. For Mongolia to accept and store U.S.-origin spent fuel from these or other nations would require Washington to first negotiate a nuclear trade agreement with Ulaanbaatar…

In most nations, the idea of accepting foreign spent fuel has seemed an even greater anathema [than  in the US]. Russian officials have discussed building an international repository on their territory, but the idea appears to have faded due to domestic opposition.  Nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis said he wonders if the situation would be any different in Mongolia.  “I think these guys are fooling themselves [if they] believe we will put a spent-fuel depot in Mongolia,” he told GSN in a brief interview, noting surprise at Stratford’s remarks. “I don’t think Mongolia is going to accept being a regional spent-fuel repository.”  Hibbs said that as “a country that’s surrounded by two big powers” — Russia and China — Mongolia is “trying to carve a niche out for itself economically in the region.”  Broadening its involvement in the nuclear energy sector might serve as just such an economic lever, Hibbs said.

Mongolia could seek to step up mining of its natural uranium deposits and potentially expand into a wider array of services, such as providing foreign nations with fresh fuel and then taking back the atomic waste at a later date, according to regional experts .  This type of move would come at a time when neither Russia nor China has acted on similar concepts for what is termed “leasing” of nuclear material.

There could also be interest among officials in and outside the Mongolian government in developing nuclear power to meet that nation’s own growing energy needs, according to some sources. Ulaanbaatar last week signed a memorandum of understanding with Seoul to cooperate on peaceful nuclear technologies and expertise….Hibbs said it is highly unlikely that Mongolia is exploring its atomic energy options with an eye toward eventually developing a nuclear weapon…Lewis had a slightly different take on the matter.“I don’t think Mongolia has any interest in developing a bomb right now,” he said. “But if Mongolia wants to move from uranium mining into the fuel cycle, that could contribute to an unwelcome spread of sensitive facilities.”

This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Excerpt, Elaine M. Grossman, Mongolia May Store Region`s Spent Nuclear Fuel, Senior U.S. Official Says, UB Post, April 5, 2011.

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