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
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.