The honchos of India's atomic energy establishment sat in a November 2006 closed-door meeting, and the head of the nuclear programme said the unspeakable.
He admitted they had goofed up.
“In hindsight… if a formal mechanism had been in place, it (DAE) could’ve probably anticipated and taken corrective action pertaining to the mismatch between demand and supply of inputs for the nuclear power programme,” said Anil Kakodkar, head of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), according to the minutes of the meeting.
This oversight deprived millions of cheap power at a time when India is trying to ease power shortages and use N-power to support its economy.
The DAE has known for nine years that a fuel crisis is coming. But it wasted the opportunity to produce power at Rs 2.74 per unit, lower than in most parts of the country. In Gurgaon, consumers pay up to Rs 10 per unit.
Outside the nuclear establishment, the nuclear bosses have always been in denial, with the DAE telling auditors “monitoring was done at the highest level, especially in an informal manner, keeping in view the sensitivity of the programme”.
Apart from the peculiar nature of “informal” monitoring of a showpiece programme, something else sticks out. The DAE was from time to time reporting on uranium-related developments to the Atomic Energy Commission, also headed by Kakodkar. That conflict of interest forced the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) to make the observation: “The government may review the existing arrangement of the same incumbent holding the posts of both secretary DAE and chairman AEC.”
Worse, the DAE misled the Cabinet. Despite its own 2000 order to establish fuel linkages before setting up new reactors, it sought and got approval for four new reactors worth Rs 6,350 crore, not informing Cabinet about the fuel shortages.
The ramifications run deep. All the nuclear power produced adds up to only three per cent of India's electricity production, but it is billed as the vehicle for the next stage of Indian economic growth.
India currently has the capacity to produce 4,000 megawatts of N-energy, but due to the fuel shortage, around 2,000-megawatt capacity is idle. It costs up to Rs 8 crore to build the capacity to make 1 megawatt of power.
So the government’s aim of getting eight per cent electricity from nuclear sources by 2020 seems out of reach.
The uranium for that cheaper power could have come from places like the Domiasiat mining project in Meghalaya. But the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd took 12 years just to prepare a detailed project report and 14 to prepare an environmental assessment report, with no questions asked.
And in Jharkhand's Jaduguda town, mine operations were scaled down and 93,400 tonnes of what uranium ore was available wasn't processed.
“Despite the existence of uranium reserves to support the present (heavy water reactor) programme up to 2020, India's capacity for generation of nuclear power has been compromised for want of uranium,” said.