Mongolia is considering nuclear
Author: Dimitris Symeonidis, The Hague
Ukhnaa Khurelsukh won a landslide victory of 68% of the votes cast in the June 2021 elections in Mongolia. Against the backdrop of Mongolia’s rich uranium deposits, Khurelsukh’s long-standing support for nuclear power appears to be sparking geopolitical interest in Beijing. Khurelsukh and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in July 2021 to continue strengthen strategic relationships, including in the mining industry.
If the shift to cleaner technologies as part of Mongolia’s Vision 2050 involves leveraging its uranium endowment to produce nuclear power, Ulaanbaatar appears to be facing a difficult choice between Russia or China for development expertise.
China’s potential, in particular, to accelerate Mongolia’s development of a domestic nuclear industry comes as China expands its arsenal of nuclear weapons near the Sino-Mongolian border.
In July 2021, analysts revealed that China appears to be building around 250 nuclear silos in western China, particularly in Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia. These silos are found near some of the richest uranium deposits in the world on the Mongolian side of the border. Independent experts suggest the project could represent the biggest expansion in China’s nuclear arsenal to date.
The biggest nuclear expansion since the Cold War dates back to the height of Sino-Soviet tensions, when China reportedly deployed 60,000 to 75,000 Chinese troops and nuclear warheads in Mongolia. After the cold war, wishing that this does not happen again, Ulaanbaatar declared unilaterally itself a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) at the United Nations.
Now, with serious air quality issues plaguing the capital from the burning of coal and wood, and as the country focuses its attention on climate goals and maintaining energy security, the domestic debate stepped up on the potential of nuclear technology, and for China to help develop uranium mines and fission plants.
In 2011, Tsogtshaikhan Gombo, vice president of state-owned uranium mining company MonAtom, announced that Mongolia aims to make first nuclear power plant current by 2020.
This never materialized, but in his previous post as prime minister, Khurelsukh was keen to push the construction of nuclear power plants forward. In 2019 an informal arrangement was concluded with then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that Russia would help facilitate its development.
An agreement was also reached between the Russian state atomic energy company Rosatom and the Mongolian Nuclear Energy Commission to build a nuclear capacity building center in 2018, although development has not yet started. The International Atomic Energy Agency has also sent a mission in Mongolia to share tips on sound nuclear management. This was followed by recent statements from Dr Teghsbayar, a member of MonAtom, that Mongolia has the uranium reserves necessary for mining and exporting, but also for production. nuclear energy.
Now, increasingly close ties with Beijing could mean Mongolia may look to China to expand its nuclear industry instead. Khurelsukh’s Mongolian People’s Party has been accused of massive militarization supported and funded by China.
Mongolia’s dismal financial situation means the country is unlikely to build nuclear power plants over the next decade, let alone develop uranium mining sites, without significant outside help.
Considering commitments made at COP26 and the trend to shift away from fossil fuels, world powers seem increasingly interested in opportunities to invest in nuclear capacity development with international partners as bilateral bargaining chips, especially uranium-rich border countries .
Khurelsukh must strategically position himself for tough decisions ahead – balancing Mongolia’s development interests without undermining the nation’s values in the global non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Dimitris Symeonidis is an independent energy policy and geopolitical risk analyst based in The Hague.