If critics of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal thought the discovery of uranium in “exceptionally high concentration” in Ladakh will add to their ammunition, they had better think again. A geologist from Kumaon University in Nainital reportedly stumbled on the uranium-bearing magmatic rocks in the region and when analysed by a German lab they were found to contain as much as 5.36 percent of uranium. This is remarkable, considering that uranium ores unearthed elsewhere in the subcontinent have never exceeded 0.1 per cent in richness. Those opposing the 123 agreement — which has provisions to choke off fuel supplies to India’s nuclear reactors in case the country conducted any more nuclear weapons tests — may wave this as an important reason for the deal not to go through, arguing that uranium in Ladakh guarantees fuel supplies to our reactors that would no longer need to depend on other nations to remain operational.
This is fallacious reasoning. For even if the latest findings are confirmed, it will be years before the Ladakh uranium could be mined to augment India’s current uranium reserves of 94,000 tonnes. India is one of a handful of countries to have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, right from prospecting, mining of uranium ore, and building and operating nuclear reactors, to nuclear waste management. The country drew its three-stage nuclear power programme expressly because of insufficient uranium reserves. The first stage depends on Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) that use natural uranium available in the country. Besides generating power, PHWRs convert a part of U238 in natural uranium into plutonium, which is separated from the spent fuel in plutonium reprocessing plants. The second stage, consisting of fast breeder reactors (FBRs), is expected to be operational by 2020 and it will be fuelled by plutonium (obtained from the PHWRs) and U238. The surplus plutonium from each FBR could be used to set up additional FBRs and grow the nuclear capacity in tune with India’s needs. Thorium breeders, which form the third stage, are several decades away.
So if discoveries like the Ladakh uranium potentially add to India’s uranium reserves, then it is all the more reason to subscribe to agreements like the 123 compact, as they will help the country shore up its uranium reserves and achieve a reasonable nuclear electric base in the meantime. Even if some fine print poses hurdles at some point later.