Demand for uranium set to outstrip US in 2020s

China Daily, March 8, 2011

China will surpass the United States as the world's largest consumer of uranium during the 2020s as the nation's imports rise sharply to feed a growing nuclear industry, a high-level energy official told China Daily.

But Qian Zhimin, deputy director of the National Energy Administration, insisted that forward planning means China's rising demand will not cause the price of uranium to surge worldwide.

The country's demand is likely to rise sharply because China is building several nuclear reactors and uranium will be used to power them.

International institutions are debating when China may pass the US as the world's largest consumer.

"It is a question of time," Qian told China Daily during an exclusive interview from the sidelines of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

"We will not have to wait long for it to be true. It should happen some time before 2030."

He said it will happen naturally while China passes the US as the world's largest energy consumer.

Qian is also a national committee member of the CPPCC and the former chairman of China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Co Ltd (CGNPC). CGNPC is one of the nation's two major nuclear electricity and nuclear fuel providers.

Li Ning, dean of the School of Energy Research with Xiamen University, predicted "by 2025, China could grow to become the largest uranium consumer" given the government's plan to boost its generation of electricity through nuclear power.

China already has 11 nuclear reactors in use and another 13 are under construction. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) says China is planning to construct an additional 187 nuclear reactors.

The China Nuclear Energy Association said in July last year that China plans to build more than 60 by 2020, with each requiring 400 tons of uranium to start operating.

Last year, China imported 17,136 tons of uranium, which was three times the quantity of the previous year, according to the nation's customs agency.

"Such robust growth will be sustained for years because the reference point was quite low and demand is increasing rapidly," Qian said.

For years, nations including the US, France and Japan have been the world's biggest uranium consumers.

China has stepped up its construction of nuclear power stations during the past five years in an attempt to reduce its reliance on coal and to support its attempts to fight climate change.

Qian said that, by 2020, nuclear power could be contributing "7 to 8 percent" of the nation's electricity, which is higher than the government's target of 5 percent.

Statistics from the WNA show China's annual consumption of uranium will reach 20,000 tons by 2020, about one third of global output in 2009.

China's own exploitation and supply of uranium is far below its demand, which has forced the nation to buy from overseas. It is estimated that China is currently producing about 1,000 tons of uranium a year, which is about half of its current demand.

A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency said China's proven uranium deposits extend to about 100,000 tons, which could be used up by 2020.

While China's demand for uranium keeps growing, some international experts have said the cost of the commodity could rise as well.

Qian disagreed.

"The majority of uranium deals worldwide are done through forward contracts, rather than spot transactions, and China has always had a long-term plan for its uranium demand and purchases," he said. "So, China's rising demand will not exert a major impact on the global market."

China is now drafting its plans for uranium purchases during the next 10 years, said Qian who refused to go into details.