CISAC physicist returns to Mongolia to bolster nonproliferation

CISAC science fellow Undraa Agvaanluvsan faces no small task this summer: She has returned to her native Mongolia to help draft first-time legal and security protocols to ensure that the country’s uranium-based nuclear industry develops safely while also attracting international investment. “Our government needs to be prepared to move ahead,” the nuclear physicist said. “Mining needs to be regulated, there need to be laws specific to uranium so that extraction won’t cause a risk to security.”

Mongolia boasts rich uranium reserves and the mining industry contributes to about 25 percent of the country’s economy. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian partners exported Mongolian uranium ore for military purposes to a well-guarded enrichment facility in nearby Angarsk, Siberia, Undraa said. (Mongolians use only one name — Agvaanluvsan is Undraa’s late father’s name.) After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, mining in Mongolia almost stopped. “Today the security concern is completely different,” Undraa said. “It is said that some people even dig uranium, among other minerals, out of the ground with no legal right to do so. They’re called ‘ninjas.’ It’s worrisome and it’s completely unregulated.”

According to Undraa, foreign investors want to develop Mongolia’s uranium mines quickly. “Mining companies may be supportive of nuclear nonproliferation but their main objective is their business bottom-line,” she said. “There is not enough concern for security. The area we’re concerned with — nonproliferation and national security — seems very far from them.”

Since November, Undraa has split her time between CISAC and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where she has worked in the lab’s nuclear experimental group for three years. At CISAC, she has focused on the development of Mongolia’s civilian nuclear industry and how such changes are influencing the country’s fledgling democracy and market economy. Mongolia was a socialist state until a peaceful democratic revolution took place in 1990. The vast, landlocked country, squeezed between Russia and China with a population of 3 million, is now a multiparty capitalist democracy.

Undraa, 35, plans to return to Encina Hall this fall to continue this work with CISAC Co-Director Siegfried S. Hecker and consulting professor Chaim Braun. Under the auspices of the recently established Mongolian-American Scientific Research Center in Ulaanbaatar, the scientist is helping to organize two international conferences in the Mongolian capital this September on uranium mining and nuclear physics. Undraa hopes the conference findings will help her country, a non-nuclear weapons state, develop uranium mining profitably and responsibly.

“Mongolia plans to build a nuclear industry, starting from a zero baseline,” Undraa’s research plan states. “With a clean slate, how should Mongolia develop its uranium industry? What does Mongolia need to do to position itself as a trustworthy, global supplier of uranium?”

“With a clean slate, how should Mongolia develop its uranium industry? What does Mongolia need to do to position itself as a trustworthy, global supplier of uranium?”Undraa also wants to assess whether it makes economic sense for a developing Mongolia to turn to nuclear power or construct high-pressure coal-powered plants, which cost less and are faster to build and operate. She is acutely aware of the effects of climate change — in the late 1990s and early 2000s, millions of livestock across Mongolia’s steppes and deserts died due to harsh winters and summer droughts. “I have family members who lost their nomadic way of life — camels, sheep, goats, cattle died,” she said. “They had to move to the city because there was no point staying in the countryside.” As a result, the population of Ulaanbaatar has soared in recent years, with a parallel increase in pollution from coal fires burned by people living in traditional gers or yurts. “People say the pollution there is worse than Mexico City, worse than Beijing,” the scientist said.

Mining for Mongolia

On the uranium production front, Undraa wants to investigate whether her country should develop its own enrichment plant or collaborate with the Soviet-era facility in Angarsk. AREVA, the French multinational industrial nuclear power conglomerate, also is interested in building a power plant in Mongolia in exchange for raw uranium, she said.

An alterative proposal suggested by Sidney Drell, CISAC founding co-director, and Burton Richter, SLAC director emeritus, would establish a multinational uranium enrichment facility in Mongolia with possible collaboration from Japan, a country with a good track record for nuclear transparency. Such a facility could help meet the demands of growing energy markets in nearby China, India, and South Korea. Undraa said she supports exploring this option, which could bolster Mongolia’s position as a global producer of enriched uranium for nuclear power plants. “Mongolia is a democracy with friendly relations with Russia, China, the European Union, Japan, North and South Korea, as well as the United States,” she said during a May 7 presentation at CISAC. “This is a long shot,” Hecker said. “But perhaps an enriched uranium fuel guarantee from Mongolia instead of the United States may be more successful in keeping some countries from building their own enrichment facilities.”

Science as a tool to effect policy

Undraa hopes that her hands-on research at CISAC will help her homeland. “Being from Stanford has given me a platform to talk to the uranium mining people,” she said. “It gives me a right to talk to them as a scientist who is concerned with these global issues.”

The work brings Undraa full circle — as a teenager she wanted to become a diplomat but her father, a coal miner, was pro-western and pro-democratic during the socialist period and he knew that his daughter would face difficulties if she tried to enter the field. He instilled in Undraa what she calls “an American way” of thinking. “I was a very American girl in communist Mongolia in the 1980s,” she said smiling. “What he said was, ‘You’re entitled to have a view, so have a view. You’re entitled to ask questions, so ask questions.’” He also stressed the importance of pursuing education. Undraa took that lesson to heart, excelling in mathematics, then earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the National University of Mongolia and a doctorate from North Carolina State University.

In addition to helping Mongolia develop protocols for uranium mining and enrichment, Undraa and her husband, Dugersuren Dashdorj, also a nuclear physicist, and like-minded colleagues such as the country’s foreign minister, Sanjaasuren Oyen — the first Mongolian to earn a doctorate from Cambridge — are considering plans to establish their nation’s first major interdisciplinary research English-language university. The project is representative of Undraa’s drive to make a difference in Mongolia. “We don’t have to be bound by how it has been done in the past,” she said. “We can do it differently. We realize this is not a one-to-two-year project — it will take decades to establish. But one has to start somewhere.”