Nepal Considers Uranium Mining Proposal in the Himalayas

In March 2019, lawmakers in Nepal proposed 17 amendments to the Safe and Peaceful Use of Nuclear and Radioactive Materials bill. Originally drafted almost a decade ago, the bill was presumably dead on arrival, but is now being resurrected in the wake of recently discovered uranium deposits in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal. The bill was officially re-introduced in December 2018, and in subsequent months a contentious debate has emerged on whether or not Nepal’s future should include nuclear power.

Sketch of the Mustang region in Nepal––Lomangthang is the area of Upper Mustang where a large uranium recently was found (Source: Goran tek-en/Wikipedia).

The nuclear bill would make uranium mining, enrichment, import, and export permissible and establish Nepal as a place where nuclear and radioactive substances could be stored. It would allow uranium enrichment facilities as well as nuclear research reactors (NRRs), which produce neutrons from enriched uranium to be used in medicine, industry, and other research, but do not generate power. To regulate the nuclear and radioactive power sector, the bill would allot non-transferable licenses and establish sanctions for technology misuse resulting in injury or death.

When proposed amendments came out in March, most excluded the word “nuclear” from the bill. Almost all lawmakers thought that nuclear power, if at all, should be addressed in a separate bill, rather than one regarding the use of radioactive materials. Many also opposed storage of nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation as a whole. For now, it is up to parliament to decide how the bill should be amended to address these concerns.

Back in 2014, a ground radiometric survey revealed a huge deposit of uranium ore in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region. Upper Mustang, formerly the elusive Kingdom of Lo, is tucked into the Himalayas right at Nepal’s northern border with Tibet. One of the most remote and isolated areas of the world, the entire Mustang region is home to around 13,000 people.

The Kali Gandaki river bed, part of the Gandaki river watershed in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal (Source: Carsten.nebel).

The Mustang region also accounts for more than 15 percent of Nepal’s glaciers, which feed the Kali Gandaki River. Despite the small population in its immediate surroundings, the largerGandaki River watershed provides water to some 40 million people.

Preliminary research, confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suggests that the 10-kilometer-long, 3-kilometer-wide uranium deposit in Upper Mustang could be “of the highest grade.” Currently, however, there is no law governing uranium extraction or nuclear technology use in Nepal. In the absence of such legislation, the government has no means to carry out these activities, which can be exorbitantly expensive to undertake.

Proponents cite this gap as their motivation for endorsing the bill. For example, Nepal does not have the ability to import any nuclear-related technology necessary for treating cancer patients or to buy technology for nuclear power.

Giriraj Mani Pokharel, Nepal’s Minister of Education, Science, and Technology, is leading the charge for uranium extraction, production, and trade in Nepal. Under Pokharel’s direction, the ministry was responsible for introducing the nuclear bill in the first place. At an IAEA conference in December 2018, he said, “The goal of the country’s prosperity cannot be achieved without its development. So, opening a nuclear research center in Nepal is an urgent need.”

Landscape of Upper Mustang, with snow-covered mountains in the background (Source: 112tje/Flickr).

Though support for the bill is strong, several members of parliament, as well as Nepali people have pushed back equally as much, and for a number of reasons. In an opinion piece published on myRepública, Mahesh K. Maskey, the former ambassador of Nepal to China declared, “Uranium is a dirty and dangerous source of energy and radioisotopes. Dirty because it is detrimental not only to human and other life forms, but also to soil, water and air since its radioactive waste can remain for millions of years, bringing untold damage to the fragile environment of earth.”

His statement has relevance for the Upper Mustang region, its glaciers are perched on the roof of the world, forming a watershed that nourishes life and land all across Nepal, even reaching millions in China and India. To approve a uranium mining operation next door could put the entire Gandaki watershed at risk of contamination through radioactive pollution. In addition, Mustang’s uranium site is a mere 10 km from the Tibetan border, meaning Nepal could become responsible for imposing a radioactive hazard on people outside its borders.

Extractive industries are extremely expensive to undertake, especially if environmental protection is to be considered. The nuclear weapons potential of uranium is an additional complication. To offset the costs of mining uranium, Nepal would have to sell excess to other countries. At this prospect, Maskey surmised, “If we take a moment to think which country Nepal will approach to sell its uranium, we will realize how unthinkable such thought is.” Competition between the nuclear powers encircling Nepal could destabilize political relations, exacerbating the vulnerability of Nepal’s resources.

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