China has discovered that it is rich in uranium

China has discovered that it is rich in uranium

The discovery of new uranium deposits in China marks a watershed for the country. The discovery of extensive reserves in the subsoil would not only be exceptional news from an engineering point of view, as reported by the South China Morning Post, but also from an industrial point of view which would allow Beijing to rewrite its energy future in the name of nuclear power. . "This world-class project is a major turning point for the country," China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), the leading state-owned company in the field, declared on its WeChat profile.

An engineering competition Geologists Chinese in late May announced that they had discovered uranium deposits within an as yet unexplored layer of 3,000 meters below the earth's surface, about six times the depth of most Chinese uranium mines. The discovery has sparked interest because it is helping to overturn some conceptions that have so far dominated the field of geology. In fact, the most widespread current theory believes that radioactive material could not be formed except at very shallow depths and in geologically stable areas. In recent years, however, Chinese scientists have challenged this view by discovering a series of uranium deposits in southern China located more than 1,500 meters underground. According to the current understanding of the phenomenon, the violent tectonic tremors to which the area is subject should hinder the long and complex formation of uranium. These recent discoveries announced by CNNC therefore only reinvigorate the drive towards a new understanding of the phenomenon.

These deposits would never have been identified except thanks to the technological advances made in the last decade. The CNNC in particular has invested heavily in scientific research and in the development of technological applications for the extraction of uranium. In December 2019, for example, the company launched its deep exploration program at the Xiangshan Mine Site in Jiangxi Province. Thanks to a new detection system based on gamma-ray spectroscopy developed by its team of researchers, CNNC was able to determine the existence of a uranium deposit 1550 meters from the surface. According to the company, the new technology allows good results even in deep environments, characterized by high temperatures and strong pressure.

Chinese uranium for nuclear power plants The discovery of uranium deposits for industrial use at great depths would substantially increase the country's mineral reserves. According to the scientists involved in the project, the amount of uranium present in the country would be ten times higher than previously believed and, according to these estimates, Beijing would have more than 2 million tons of radioactive material. This figure puts China's mining heritage virtually on par with that of Australia, one of the richest uranium countries in the world.

The discovery received a warm welcome in Beijing. Until now, the extraction of Chinese uranium was fragmented into small activities, unable to meet the growing amount of radioactive material required for energy production. More than 70% of China's used uranium supplies are imported, with Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia accounting for the big chunk of these imports.

This dependence on foreign suppliers was probably badly digested by the Chinese management, which over the years has favored the exploration and acquisition of mines abroad. Several state-owned companies have been mobilized for this purpose. Available data indicate that Chinese companies have made investments in uranium mining in Africa, Central Asia and Canada.

However, according to a nuclear industry analyst heard by the South China Morning Post, these reserves will not reduce China's dependence on foreign uranium in the short term. The cost and engineering difficulty of extracting radioactive material from similar depths is still too prohibitive. In the long run, however, "it is likely that [the discovery, ed.] Will have a profound impact on China's position in the global market," says the analyst.

Nuclear energy for Beijing The discovery, at least theoretically, represents excellent news for Beijing, which in recent years has accelerated its nuclear development programs. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Chinese power plant construction projects had been slowed down to ensure adequate safety controls, and China's nuclear power generation amounted to around 20 gigawatts in 2015. As reported by data from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), China has quickly become the largest expanding market for nuclear energy. The government's goal set for 2020 was to reach the production of 58 gigawatts and, although the threshold has not been reached, the development plans produced in Beijing in recent years have remained ambitious: the nuclear industry will have to be able to produce 70 gigawatts by 2025 and 200 gigawatts by 2035.

China is pushing hard on nuclear energy research and development for at least two reasons. The first undoubtedly concerns the environmental catastrophe due to the pollution of the nearly three thousand coal-fired power plants that still today make up an essential slice of the Chinese energy mix. Beijing expects to reach the peak of greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade and to reach carbon neutrality by 2060: to do so, renewables (wind and solar in particular) will be crucial, but nuclear energy will follow closely. in terms of importance.

The second reason instead has to do with energy self-sufficiency. In recent years, Beijing has put national security at the center of its agenda, which also takes on a version in the field of energy supply. China is by far the largest oil importer in the world, a dependence on foreign supplies that the Chinese leadership has come to regard as a risk to the country’s stability. In addition to expanding domestic nuclear power generation, Beijing also intends to improve self-sufficiency in uranium production for its power plants. Hence the focus on the search for new deposits within the national territory.

Not only technical problems We will have to wait even longer before the technologies necessary to extract the uranium found in the depths of Chinese soil will become usable on industrial industrial scale. But the difficulties don't stop at the technical aspects. In fact, in November 2020 the CNNC entered the center of the Sino-US confrontation when former President Donald Trump placed it on a black list of companies linked to the Chinese army in which no entity or individual can invest. Joe Biden then reconfirmed the sanctions imposed by his predecessor.

As China embarks on expanding its arsenal of nuclear warheads, the discovery of new deposits will certainly have consequences in military terms by allowing the armed forces to be able to access more uranium. This development will be linked in the next few years by the advancement of mining technology as well as the Chinese nuclear industry and, consequently, also the confrontation with the United States.

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