Mongolia’s uranium resources attract nuclear energy interests from Western countries

The Gobi Desert, once revered by Mongolian poet Dulduityn Danzanravjaa as hiding a cosmic portal to the heavenly kingdom of Shambala, was transformed in the 20th century from spiritual energy center to fossil-fuel hub. Wild rabbits and donkeys share the windswept dunes with rusting oil pumps, while an endless caravan of soot-stained trucks haul coal south to the border with China. Now, the Gobi is on the cusp of another reincarnation, one that its supporters believe could help future-proof the global energy landscape.

In October, the French state-owned nuclear firm Orano a $1.7 billion deal to extract and process uranium from the Zuuvch-Ovoo mine, not two hours by car from the landmarked site of Danzanravjaa’s cosmic portal. Mongolia’s first uranium mine is expected to produce about 2,750 tons annually for three decades, some 4% of global production; it’s currently one of the top 10 unexploited deposits worldwide.

“This deposit is far from the only one,” says Olivier Thoumyre, a senior vice president for Orano. “There is huge potential in Mongolia … to enter the uranium market at the right time, because we know needs are going to increase.” Mongolia boasts the world’s second largest uranium reserves, which promise to catapult this landlocked nation of 3.5 million into position as a key player in the global renewable-energy transition.

Catalyzed by the war in Ukraine and Europe’s desire to wean itself off cheap Russian gas, support is booming for clean nuclear energy, which generates electricity by splitting atoms of uranium or plutonium. The enthusiasm must overcome deep anxiety over reactor meltdowns such as those at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, questions about the disposal of nuclear waste, and the potential for plants to be targets of war or terrorism. But historic fatalities across seven decades of the civil nuclear industry are measured in the low thousands. Meanwhile, air pollution from burning fossil fuels is to cause 5 million deaths every year.

Today, nations from Romania and Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh and Indonesia are exploring nuclear plants. The E.U. has included nuclear power plants in its list of “green” investments that can be funded by its own green bonds, given the energy produced boasts just a quarter of the carbon footprint of even solar. At COP28, more than 20 countries across four continents to triple the world’s nuclear energy capacity by 2050. Even Germany, which shuttered most of its 17 reactors after Fukushima, is now openly considering developing small modular reactors. “Today, we probably have more of a problem of capacity than public acceptance,” says Thoumyre.

Diversifying uranium supplies also makes sense for the U.S. Despite strict sanctions on oil and gas over Vladimir Putin’s war of choice, the first six months of 2023 saw Russian shipments of enriched uranium to America’s 92 commercial nuclear reactors more than double, to $695.5 million. On May 13, U.S. President Joe Biden legislation to curb this supply, though experts predict that it will take at least five years of heavy investment for the U.S. to break its Russian uranium dependency.

Mongolia can help in that regard, if it steps lightly. It may be an adolescent, rambunctious democracy, but a nation squeezed between Russia and China—and whose capital, Ulan Bator, literally translates as “red hero”—cannot shrug off historical and geopolitical baggage so easily. Since democratization in 1990, Mongolia has cultivated ties with the West via its “third-neighbor policy,” of which the Orano deal is a prime example. But a nation reliant on Beijing for 90% of trade and Moscow for 90% of imported gas and petroleum must tread carefully in this fraught new era of great-power competition. “Russia feels Mongolia’s mines are really their assets because Soviet money was invested into them,” says Ken de Graaf, a former vice chairman of the North America–Mongolia Business Council.

Mongolia is an acute illustration of the geopolitical, environmental, and economic challenges facing mineral-rich nations seeking to benefit from emerging technologies, whether supplying indium for flat-screen TVs, rhenium for jet engines, or gallium for smartphones. With mining already accounting for a quarter of GDP and 90% of exports, the hope in Mongolia is that this generation of energy extraction works out better than the last. The nation remains blighted by endemic poverty and, because of a reliance on coal for heat and power, some of the planet’s most rancid air. Over the past decade, respiratory diseases in Ulan Bator—the world’s most polluted capital—have increased nearly three-fold, with pneumonia the second leading cause of death among young children today. Miscarriages are 3.5 times as common in Ulan Bator’s polluted winter as in the comparatively clear summer.

But resource exploitation is a charged issue in Mongolia, a third of whose people are nomadic and fiercely protective of ancestral lands, worshipping the Eternal Blue Sky and considering even a shallow trench a shameful defiling of Mother Earth. The challenge for Mongolia’s government is to safely harness the benefits of the resource boom while mitigating pushback within its borders and beyond.

“I’m confident that we will have a successful cooperation with Orano,” Mongolian Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai tells TIME. “But it is important for us to have public acceptance so that the project can be legitimate among the people of Mongolia.”

Securing that legitimacy has been a key focus for Orano, which formed a local joint venture, Badrakh Energy, to run Zuuvch-Ovoo alongside Mongolian state mining company Erdenes Mongol LLC. Orano began exploring the Gobi back in 1997, discovering its first uranium deposits in 2006 and obtaining licenses in 2016. It then built a pilot project to demonstrate feasibility, producing 11 tons of uranium over 18 months during 2021 and 2022. The pilot project remains staffed by a skeleton crew, though the site will likely be used for training the 800 permanent staff for the full mine, construction of which is slated to take three or four years.

Practically all Zuuvch-Ovoo’s neighbors are nomads who live in gers, otherwise known as yurts—felt-covered domed tents of latticed wood with central dung-burning stoves. Mongolians assemble their gers to face south to catch the light; they can be easily transported on camels to follow grazing herds and reassembled in under an hour. It’s a harsh existence with temperatures in the Gobi plunging to –40°F in the winter and soaring to 113°F during summer. Gers are still constructed as they have been for millennia, albeit now with solar-powered televisions, refrigerators, and wi-fi connections.

When Orano first set up camp nearby, the herders were suspicious, unnerved by alarmist social media posts that incorrectly suggested radiation from uranium could cause mutations in livestock. (Toxic waste is a concern nuclear power plants must deal with, but mining raw uranium exposes workers to far less radiation than a job as a hospital radiologist would.) Staff would be chased away by furious locals, who hurled dead animals and once even a Mol