OPINION

Better shore up domestic uranium resources

R. Ramachandran

A temporary shortage has arisen because of a supply-demand mismatch. Why resort to imports through an undesirable deal?

The need to meet uranium shortage through imports is one of the arguments advanced by the proponents of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. In a recent interview to a TV channel, Union Minister for Science & Technology Kapil Sibal said: “Manifestly, the deal is about uranium… to breathe life into our nuclear reactors which are running at half the capacity. Without uranium they will soon come to a grinding halt.” While the deal is aimed at enabling India to access the world nuclear market, which at present is not possible because of the existing trade regime underpinned by the nuclear order dictated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, contrary to what Mr. Sibal says, the shortage is only temporary and has arisen because of a supply-demand mismatch between the domestic uranium mines and an expanding indigenous nuclear programme.

Resource break-up

The three-stage Indian nuclear programme is premised on the possibility of generating in the first stage 10,000 MWe based on Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) using 61,000 tonnes of natural uranium (containing 0.07 per cent of fissile uranium-235) from ‘reasonably assured resources (RAR)’ over an average reactor lifetime of 40 years. (This is based on the fact that the annual charge required per 1,000 MWe is about 150 tonnes.) Besides the RAR, there is a domestic potential of 30,000 tonnes from various ‘inferred resources,’ 50,900 tonnes from ‘prognosticated resources’ and 17,000 tonnes from ‘speculative resources.’ However, Indian ores being lean, the cost of production is high, at $100-130/kg of uranium.

The shortage, no doubt, is serious. It has forced the 15 indigenous PHWRs to be operated at low capacity factors (CF). From an average CF of 60-65 per cent in 2006, the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC), under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), is striving today to run the plants at 48-50 per cent CF.

(According to the DAE, nuclear power tariff calculations are based on an average CF of 65 per cent.)

Inadequate funding

But this crunch is essentially a consequence of the inadequate funding throughout the 1990s when Manmohan Singh was Finance Minister and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the present Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Finance Secretary. This lack of funding prevented the DAE from expanding its uranium exploration, mining and processing activities. In fact, it forced the department to shut down some old mines in Jaduguda ( Jharkhand). In the other exploitable sites in Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya, besides lack of funds, opposition on environmental grounds has been responsible. As a result, mining operations have not matched the expansion of the programme with its greatly reduced construction time (of around five years) and the highly improved performances (with nearly 90 per cent CF) of the indigenous PHWRs.

As Dr. Anil Kakodkar, observed in his Founder’s Day talk in October 2007: “The present fuel demand-supply mismatch would not have arisen had these projects been pursued in the same spirit with which Dr. Bhabha started activities at Jaduguda … our uranium exploration programme has seen a paradigm shift in terms of far greater mobilisation of resources and technologies and we should not rule out a PHWR capacity much larger than 10,000 MWe, should we be successful in finding more uranium. Given the capability of our uranium geologists and the unprecedented programme thrust, I see no reason why this should not happen.”

While this potential was always there, the investments in mining and exploration were nowhere commensurate with that. Not only during the 1990s, even during 2000-2006, the total expenditure by the public sector Uranium Corporation of India Ltd. and the DAE on uranium exploration and development was almost flat. Only during 2007-08 and 2008-09, did the budgeted amounts show some increase.

Just when the nuclear deal appears to be in its most critical phase, media commentators in support of it have once again begun to raise the issue of domestic fuel shortage. Such reports appeared last August as well just before the joint Left-UPA Committee was formed. At that time the NPC, in a press release, said the temporary mismatch between demand and supply from the operational mines would soon be rectified following the commissioning of new mines at Banduhurang and Turamdih (also in Jharkhand) and the new processing mill at Turamdih. This, it said, “would add to the uranium production in a short time. With this we expect the plant load factors (PLF) of plants going up in a few weeks time.”

Indeed, in mid-2007 the DAE commissioned a new mill to process mined uranium ore at Turamdih. The existing mill at Jaduguda can process 2,190 tonnes/day with a nominal production capacity of 175 tonnes of uranium/year. The Turamdih mill has a capacity of 3,000 tonnes/day with a nominal production capacity of 190 tonnes of uranium/year, according to the figures provided by the DAE to the International Atomic Energy Agency in January 2007. In fact, in recent years, faced with the shortage, production at Jaduguda was jacked up to about 230 tonnes of uranium/year. A new opencast mine at Banduhurang was opened (with the largest ore mining capacity so far of 2,400 tonnes/day and the foundation for a new underground mine in Mohuldih (with an ore capacity of 500 tonnes/day ) laid. There are also plans to expand these facilities: the Jaduguda mill to process 2,500 tonnes/day, the Turamdih mill 4,500 tonnes/day, the Banduhurang mine 3,500 tonnes/day, and the Turamdih mine 1,000 tonnes/day up from 550 tonnes. Things are likely to change further with the government approving construction of a new mine and mill at Tummalapalli in Andhra Pradesh. In all, roughly Rs. 3,100 crore is the estimated investment to open new mines and set up processing plants in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya. In Jharkhand alone, Rs. 650 crore is being invested. An investment of Rs. 1,800 crore is proposed for setting up two uranium mining and milling plants in Andhra Pradesh. New uranium projects are expected to be taken up in Karnataka, Rajasthan and other places. Most of these sites have been known for long, and would perhaps have been taken up much earlier but for poor funding.

Given the required annual recharge of about 150 tonnes of uranium per 1,000 MWe, the total requirement for the present installed capacity of 4,120 MWe is about 600 tonnes. But the new mill at Turamdih did not begin production because of teething technical problems. So, the current production remains at 45-50 per cent of the annual requirement. However, according to Dr. S.K. Jain, CMD of NPC, the problems at the Turamdih mill were tackled and production should begin soon, and would gradually be increased to its full capacity.

Even then, the plants will still fall short of the requirement by about 40 per cent. The shortfall is likely to be overcome from domestic sources only when the mines and processing plants — those currently being established as well as those planned till the end of the 11th Plan — become operational. If the Indo-U.S. deal fructifies — even in the face of Left opposition — and the world nuclear trade regime relaxes its controls, imports would be a possible source. But imports will not land immediately. Currently all world uranium suppliers are overbooked. Given the demand, the market price too has been increasing steadily to around $85/lb, which, in fact, renders Indian uranium competitive.

The units planned to be started up during the 11th Plan period (up to 2012) include the Tummalapalli mine and processing mill (of 3,000 tonnes/day capacity), which is expected to begin production(217 tonnes/year ) by 2010; the Lambapur-Peddagattu mine and the associated mine at Seripally (of 1250 tonnes/day capacity) in Andhra Pradesh, which will begin production (130 tonnes/year) by 2012; and the Kylleng-Pyndengsohiong-Mawthabah (KPM) mine and the associated KPM mill (of 2000 tonnes/day capacity) in Meghalaya, which is also expected to begin production (340 tonnes/year) by 2012. So, in addition to the current installed annual capacity of 365 tonnes, the capacity that will be created during the current Plan is projected at 687 tonnes.

The total capacity at the end of the Plan should then be about 1,050 tonnes, more than enough to cater also for the additional 2 x 220-MWe PHWRs expected to come up during the Plan period.

Therefore, if there are no glitches and hitches in implementing the planned schemes, the mismatch in uranium availability should be overcome by 2010. Of course, this will not suffice to meet the requirement of the 8 x 700-MWe PHWRs that are expected to come up during the 12th Plan up to 2017. Presumably, establishment of additional production capacity (of about 500 tonnes/year), to process ores from other potential sites, is on the cards. The temporary shortfall, which is likely to see some relief soon, is something that a programme that contributes a mere 2.9 per cent of total installed capacity of power can live with in the short-run. It is better to shore up domestic resources than resort to imports through an undesirable deal. Of course, now the proponents have suddenly begun to talk of large-scale import not just of fuel but also about 40,000 MWe of nuclear power during 2012-2020 ostensibly for long-term energy security! That proposition, in fact, is far more serious.

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