A senior U.S. Energy Department official on Wednesday disputed reports that the Obama administration has sought Mongolian support for construction of a storage site for international spent nuclear fuel in the Central Asian nation (see GSN, March 30).
The assertion--made by a high-ranking official who asked not to be named in addressing a diplomatically sensitive issue--directly countered remarks offered last spring by a veteran State Department official who leads U.S. nuclear trade-pact negotiations.
The diplomat, Richard Stratford, told a Washington audience in March that Energy Department leaders had made initial contacts with their counterparts in Ulaanbaatar about potential cooperation on a range of nuclear-fuel services that Mongolia would like to develop for international buyers.
Among the possible features of a joint project, Stratford said, could be the creation of a repository for U.S.-origin fuel that has been used by Washington's partners in the region, potentially including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
If brought to fruition, the proposal would be "a very positive step forward," he said at the time, because no nation around the globe thus far has successfully built a long-term storage facility for dangerous nuclear waste.
The Obama administration in 2009 dropped plans for a U.S. storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada--which would have been the world's only permanent repository--after prolonged debate over potential environmental and health hazards (see GSN, Sept. 13).
In an interview this week with Global Security Newswire, the high-level Energy Department official said that discussions have focused on an array of potential nuclear energy market roles for Mongolia, from mining its substantial uranium reserves to fabricating fuel and more.
However, the unofficial talks have not broached the idea of Mongolia becoming a recipient of foreign-origin spent fuel, the senior figure said.
"I never thought about U.S. spent fuel. Never," the Energy official said. "I never even thought about it, much less discussed it."
The Obama administration generally supports the idea of creating international operations for waste storage and other fuel-cycle functions that might help stem global nuclear proliferation, but "what the Mongolian government and the Mongolian people end up deciding they want to do is completely their decision and I would not dream of imposing our views on that," the senior official said.
"There's no discussion of an international spent-fuel repository," added a second Energy Department official who participated in the same interview. "What has been included as part of the comprehensive fuel-services discussions are potential long-term storage of Mongolian-origin used fuel that has Mongolian uranium [in it]."
An evolving concept of nuclear fuel "leasing" would have the Mongolians build on their existing uranium ore resources to ultimately provide reactor-ready fuel to foreign nations and, additionally, stand ready to take back used uranium fuel rods once they are depleted, according to reports.
The idea, said the more junior Energy official, is that Mongolia could "potentially add long-term storage as part of the value of that uranium resource to potential buyers."
Even if foreign-origin spent fuel cannot be stored in Mongolia, the nation's talks with its international partners might yet allow for U.S., Japanese or other companies to build facilities in the Central Asian nation to produce Mongolian fuel for sale abroad, which could later be returned to Ulaanbaatar for storage after it is used.
The Mongolian Embassy in Washington on Thursday declined comment.
The senior official chalked up the seeming disconnect between Energy and State to a simple misunderstanding, noting that the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia also initially denied in an April statement Stratford's assertions about a potential international repository .
The Mongolian foreign minister went a step further the following month, denying that talks with the United States and Japan had touched on the disposition of atomic waste of any national origin, according to a report by China's Xinhua News Agency.
As a developing nation, Mongolia might derive substantial economic benefit if it agreed to accept foreign spent fuel. However, the idea has become a political lightning rod, with the opposition Green Party charging that a waste facility could become an environmental and safety nightmare.
A number of quiet steps toward international collaboration, though, have already taken place.
Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman in September 2010 signed a memorandum of understanding with Mongolian Foreign Minister Gombojav Zandanshatar, pledging cooperation on civil nuclear power. Japan was also a party to the draft agreement, which has not been released but reportedly included a passage referring to Mongolia as a future destination for spent fuel.