Beijing - Global nuclear companies are tapping market opportunities in nuclear fuels in China as the country launches an ambitious nuclear expansion program.
Chinese demand for uranium may rise to 20,000 tons a year by 2020, more than one-third of the 50,572 tons mined globally last year, the World Nuclear Association reported.
The country's demand for nuclear fuels has already benefited foreign uranium suppliers such as Australia's Paladin and Canada's Cameco Corporation, which are pursuing cooperation with Chinese nuclear power plant developers by supplying long-term uranium sources.
Realizing the huge market potential and limited uranium reserves in China, nuclear power technology firms are also cashing in on their strengths to find more substitutes for uranium.
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the Canadian state-owned nuclear technology company, said it is looking at two alternative nuclear fuels - recovered uranium and thorium.
The company has proven the feasibility of using recovered uranium from light water reactors in its Qinshan CANDU Unit 1, which is expected to consume 30 percent less natural uranium.
If a year-long trial is successful, the practice could help China receive more energy from its imported uranium as well as reduce stocks of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel, said Ruan Yangqiang, the company's regional vice-president.
The technology processes used fuel to recover unspent uranium and mixes it with some depleted uranium to achieve a mix that has the same overall characteristics as natural uranium.
AECL is the designer and developer of the CANDU technology.
Its presence in China was limited to the Qinshan Phase III plant that uses pressurized heavy water reactors. But China, like most other countries, prefers mainstream light water reactors.
This is also part of the company's strategy to popularize its pressurized heavy water reactor, which it said is the ideal nuclear reactor design to use recycled uranium and thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel source.
Thorium is three to four times more abundant than uranium and is widely distributed in many countries as an easily exploitable resource.
Experts estimate that China has nearly 300,000 tons of thorium reserves, which is enough for the nation to use for 300 years.
Identified uranium will only supply the country for 95 years at the current annual consumption rate, according to the Uranium Red Book 2009.
"China is in a good position to utilize its abundant domestic thorium supply to power its nuclear new-build growth plan and to reduce dependence on imported nuclear fuel resources," said Hugh MacDiarmid, president of AECL.
"As natural nuclear fuels become scarce, we will have to consider reactor technologies which can more efficiently utilize uranium resources and alternative fuel resources such as thorium," Ruan said.
Another nuclear technology provider, AREVA, is also seeking possible cooperation in the nuclear fuel recycling sector in China, such as waste management.
It has signed an agreement for the pre-feasibility study related to the construction of a used fuel recycling plant, the company said.
Zhou Siyu contributed to the story.