Scraping the barrel

  • 29/04/2004

A uranium drought haunts India's nuclear programme. And in the rush to end this scarcity, UCIL has failed in gaining people's confidence. The country's current nuclear power generation is entirely dependent on natural uranium (see chart: All reactions delayed), which fuels 12 pressurised heavy water reactors and all research projects.

All this uranium comes from Jaduguda mines, whose output is 150 tonnes per year. J L Bhasin, a former chairperson and managing director of UCIL, had said in 2000 if the demands of eight reactors currently under construction are considered, India had enough uranium only till this year.

India's nuclear power plan is already 15 years behind the targets set for energy production. DAE fears that the uranium scarcity and protests can further delay the programme. While setting targets for nuclear power generation, the government in 1985 had assumed that all identified uranium reserves would be explored. No new mines have come up and the government is now panicking. According to information based on questions asked in Parliament, India needs about 450-500 tonnes of uranium oxide (processed uranium ore) every year for the current level of power generation and research (which sources put at 25 per cent of total uranium need).

The scarcity threatens to halt the second-generation fast breeder reactor (FBR) programme based on plutonium, which is derived from uranium used in the present thermal nuclear reactors. "Without uranium, we can't run the nuclear establishment and achieve the targeted 10,000 MW power in the first stage of nuclear power generation,' says P V Dubey, UCIL's company secretary. The fast breeder reactors are supposed to produce another 10,000 MW of power by 2020, but R K Sharma, head of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre's (BARC) public awareness division, admits: "It will take about 10 years before we can switch to FBRs.' India doesn't have 50 per cent of the uranium it needs and the shortfall could become 70 per cent. The government had in 1983 estimated that by using 73,000 tonnes of uranium reserve, India could produce 10,000 MW of nuclear power till 2000. Till last year, the country could only produce 2,720 MW of nuclear power and the 10,000 MW target has now been revised to 2010.

The government is so desperate that it is extracting uranium from any source possible. The ore at Jaduguda has just 0.06 percent uranium content but even to get this bit mines have been dug 905 m below the surface. The Jaduguda mines, which were started in 1967, were supposed to last for 15 years but officials say they won't abandon it for another 30 years. Spending Rs 200 crore, UCIL is extracting uranium from copper tailings at four 100 year old and closed copper mines at Surda and Rakha. An estimated Rs 15,000 crore has been spent on all these mines. "It is definitely becoming extremely expensive as we dig deeper and deeper to extract less and less,' says P P Sharma, superintendent of geology, UCIL.

But ambition high
However, undeterred by these problems the government is determined to generate 20,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020. "Aggressively build capabilities and capacity in nuclear power to progressively raise its share in India's fuel mix,' says the Tenth Five Year Plan that hawks for more nuclear energy. To achieve this, it suggests partial privatisation of nuclear power generation and market financing for projects. And for this it will extract uranium at any cost. As R Sreedhar, a former geologist with the Atomic Mineral Division, says: "The government was never transparent in its acts and now it wants to bypass the people for access to mines.'

Power source
Resources Reserves (in tonnes)
Coal 186 billion tonnes
Lignite 5,060 million tonnes
Crude Oil 728 million tonnes
Natural Gas 686 billion Cu-m
Uranium 78,000 tonnes
Thorium 3,63,000 tonnes
Hydro 84,000 MW
Renewables Biomass 6000 MWe
Wind etc 20,000 MWe
Source: Planning Commission
India would need 500,000 MW of power by 2050. It has a vast coal reserve, but there are doubts whether all of it can be mined. The country's hydrocarbon resources won't last long and it will become even more dependent on imports. India would have harnessed all its hydroelectricity resources by 2050, and non-conventional energy is unlikely to be cost-effective. A mix of all these resources could help but DAE feels that nuclear energy is the only solution, which can fill the gap between demands and supply. The government agrees and has decided to cut the estimated 70 per cent contribution of coal-based power to 62 per cent by 2020 and compensate the shortfall through nuclear stations.

The government wants that by 2050 nuclear reactors supply 25 per cent of India's total power production. The DAE is sure that it can generate 10,000 MW of nuclear power by 2010 and 20,000 MW by 2020. Its confidence is based on an indigenous technology, which recycles spent fuel of thermal nuclear reactors to get plutonium for FBRs. The Nuclear Power Corporation says it will generate 1,300 MW during the Tenth Five Year Plan and 4,660 MW during Eleventh Plan to make up for the first 10,000 MW target within the next six years. But with no new mines opening how is that possible?

In the face of this drought, the government's ambition regarding nuclear energy seem unrealistic The DAE in its 15-year plan in 1985 announced that India's nuclear power generating capacity should be increased from 1,360 MW to 10,000 MW. India then had only six nuclear units and to achieve the new target DAE proposed the establishment of eight nuclear reactors of 235 MW each and ten of 500 MW each by 2000. In addition, two 1,000 MW reactors are being built at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.

For this target, 1,700 T/Y uranium of had to be produced to meet the purified U3O8 need for all the reactors. Since 1985, only nine reactors have begun operation but the government is firm that the target has to be achieved. The Vision 2020 document of 2000 and the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07) say nuclear power is India's insurance for energy security.

An estimated Rs 10,00,000 crore has been spent on the nuclear establishment. The plan is to get maximum gains from this investment: Produce more nuclear power by burning more uranium so that it gets more plutonium, which will then be used for fast breeder reactors and the defence nuclear programme.

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