By David Stanway and Kathy Chen
BEIJING (Reuters) - China will expand its strategic uranium reserve as part of its "five-year plan" for 2016-2020, with the aim of ensuring it has enough fuel to supply a massive program of new nuclear reactors.
Beijing, which began stockpiling uranium in 2007 and is estimated by the World Nuclear Association to have 74,000 tonnes of inventory - or about nine years of current demand - does not disclose details of its reserves.
However, demand is expected to outstrip domestic supply in coming years and a move to increase reserves could give a boost to depressed global prices.
"We have been importing over the last few years when the price has been low," said Sun Qin, chairman of the state-owned nuclear project developer, the China National Nuclear Corporation, adding the time was right to build up stockpiles.
In its five-year plan released this week, the government said it would "expand the scale of natural uranium reserves", likely signaling the construction of new storage facilities as with oil six years ago.
The Shanghai Nuclear Power Office estimates China's natural uranium demand is likely to reach 11,000 tonnes by 2020, and rise to 24,000 tonnes in 2030, outstripping production from domestic mines and China-owned mines overseas.
The shortfall was expected to rise from 2,600 tonnes in 2020 to about 10,900 tonnes a decade later, it said.
Increased uranium stockpiles would ensure China would not be at the mercy of supply disruptions or short-term fluctuations in market prices.
The latest five-year plan also confirmed the country's intention to double its nuclear generation capacity to 58 gigawatts (GW) by the end of 2020, up from 28.3 GW at the end of last year, slightly less than 2 pct of total generation capacity.
To meet the target, China, which currently has 30 operating reactors, will need to build around six new reactors a year, although it is expected to build well over 100 new units by 2030 as it tries to ease its dependence on fossil fuels and create a nuclear energy industry capable of competing globally.
The 58 GW target will raise China's uranium demand to about 15 percent of the global market, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Uranium prices have fallen to around $31 a pound, less than a quarter of the levels seen in 2007 when China first began stockpiling.
"It's at least a short-term positive for uranium prices," said Simon Tonkin, an analyst for Patersons Securities in Perth, of the latest plan. "But longer term, it could mean they are not going to be buying as much. By building up the stockpile now, they are getting uranium at a cheap price."
Sun said prices have been hit by the closure of plants in Europe and the United States following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the collapse in oil prices.
Cheap prices had enabled China to buy up mining assets, but they also discouraged exploration.
"We are exploring for uranium resources in Africa, in Namibia and in Mongolia, but with the price too low, there's no way of exploiting them," he said.
Sun would not disclose the size of his firm's corporate reserves or total national reserves.
Li Ning, dean of the School of Energy Research under Xiamen University and an expert in nuclear power, said it made sense to import more uranium but domestic supplies were also substantial.
"China has large enough verified deposits, higher than we originally expected. Fuel use is small in a plant ... so [increased demand] won't impact the price since the market is oversupplied," he said.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Additional reporting by James Regan in SYDNEY; Editing by Richard Pullin)