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Mongolia May Store Taiwanese and South Korean Spent Nuclear Fuel

Mongolia may store Taiwan’s and South Korea’s spent nuclear fuel, a senior U.S. diplomat said to the Global Security Newswire.

According to Richard Stratford, who directs the State Department’s Nuclear Energy, Safety and Security Office, U.S. Energy Department’s officials and their counterparts in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, are in the early stages of discussion.

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 atomic waste.

“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.”

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.

Although Energy Department officials have reportedly engaged in informal talks with Mongolian representatives for several months, Stratford has not yet had any contact with Ulaanbaatar on the matter, he said. It is not yet certain whether formal negotiations on a nuclear trade pact will move forward.

Energy Department officials traveled to Mongolia last fall for meetings on the matter, according to Mark Hibbs, a senior associate with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He chaired the discussion on nuclear cooperation.

“It was a fruitful discussion,” Hibbs told GSN yesterday. “They went into some details [but] it was very exploratory.”

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, speculates.

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.

“I think these guys are fooling themselves [if they] believe we will put a spent-fuel depot in Mongolia,” nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis 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.”

Mongolia has a long history of uranium exploration commencing with joint Russian and Mongolian endeavors from 1950s involving investment of some US$200 million. Initial success was obtained in Dornod and Gurvanbulag regions of northeastern Mongolia where uranium is present in volcanogenic sediments.

Mongolia joined the IAEA in 1993, though it has applied safeguards under the NPT since 1972. A law on nuclear weapons-free status was passed in 2000. The Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with IAEA has been in force since May 2003.

The country’s 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 Ulaanbaatar, western Mongolia and Dornod province.

According to the Prime Minister S. Batbold, Mongolia plans to commence uranium exploration by the year of 2012 with uranium selling beginning from 2013 or 2014.

“Mongolia has nearly 1 million tons in reasonably assured reserve of uranium and we need to speed up the production,” he said earlier this January.

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