China's uranium deposits imperiled by coal mines

Coal mining adjacent to uranium deposits in northern China threatens to destroy untapped reserves of the key nuclear fuel as well as cause widespread radioactive contamination.

According to the South China Morning Post geologists now believe that tens of thousands of tons of uranium are situated beneath the ground in China’s vast inland provinces of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. The deposits could provide ample fuel for the country’s burgeoning nuclear power sector as the Chinese government pushes towards alternative sources of energy.

The uranium deposits are situated directly adjacent to oil, gas and coal reserves, however, and have triggered heated conflict between competing mining interest groups.

Song Xuebin, a former senior manager with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), has lodged a complaint with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference claiming that coal mining in the area could inflict “huge destruction to uranium resources” as well as cause radioactive pollution.

Professor Gu Zhongmao of the China Institute of Atomic Energy says that the deposits could be destroyed by coal mining, and even worse, radioactive material could end up in coal-fired power plants and trigger severe environmental pollution.

Chinese scientists first discovered the uranium deposits after attempting to solve the mystery of why coal in the region displayed such high levels of radioactivity.

Recent tests by Yin Lianqing of North China Electric Power University indicate that the dissemination of radioactive material by coal-fired power plants is already a severe problem.

According to Yin the radiation levels of certain residential areas close to coal plants is “hundreds of times higher than what you would expect near a nuclear power plant.”

According to a 2006 paper published by Liu Chiyang of Shaanxi’s Northwest University nearly all the uranium and coal deposits in northern China formed simultaneously, accounting for their close proximity.