Nearly three years ago, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stood on the lawns of the White House with President George W Bush, announcing a civil nuclear deal with the US, there was another country he could have turned to for fuel for India’s N-power plants: India.
<b1>Even as it scouts for nuclear fuel from the US and elsewhere, India has been sitting on massive, untapped reserves of uranium, hundreds of tonnes of which have been discovered over the past couple of years — adding to the over 1 lakh tonnes already identified in Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.
Together, these uranium resources would be enough to run all of India’s current and planned nuclear power plants for their entire lifetime of 40 years. In the context of the bitter political debate in India over taking N-fuel from the US, the irony is inescapable.
India’s atomic energy establishment has done next to nothing to tap deposits identified up to 15 years ago. Mining is yet to begin at several sites explored, identified and handed through the 1990s by the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD), the government’s uranium exploration arm, to the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL).
Some untapped reserves in Meghalaya contain the best-available quality of uranium. And according to Anjan Chaki, chief of Hyderabad-based AMD, many of the new reserves too contain a much better quality of ore than is currently available.
However, despite having no uranium, the government has gone about spending thousands of crores on new N-power plants. “The country has been burdened with overcapacity of nuclear power plants with little uranium to run them even though, ironically, we have had it all along,” a top official told Hindustan Times.
Out of the 4,000 MW-plus installed capacity of India’s nuclear power plants, almost 2,000 MW capacity is lying idle. That is a waste of at least Rs 16,000 crore of public investment — it takes up to Rs 8 crore to build the capacity of generating one MW of nuclear power. India currently uses about 1,300 tonnes of uranium a year.
Chaki suggests costs might have been behind the sloth. “Perhaps if they had come out of Singhbhum in Jharkhand, and gone out to mine, things would have been better, but perhaps they did not have sufficient funds.”
However, lack of funds has never been seen as a problem for India’s atomic energy programme, which has a Rs 8,000 crore budget, direct supervision of, and access to, the PM, and the legal power to acquire any area for exploration.
Sitting in his heavily guarded complex in Jharkhand’s Jaduguda town, UCIL’s chairman-cum-managing director Ramendra Gupta dismissed allegations of slackness.
“We are on track to opening up new projects, and while opening up new projects, sometimes there are some delays because of land acquisition, environmental clearances, and opposition from local groups,” he told HT.
He, however, agreed, there was “some mismatch (between the need and availability of uranium) for the time being, which is expected to be over once the new projects are commissioned.”
Nuclear power comprises a minuscule three per cent of India's electricity production, which is dominated by coal-based thermal power (72%) and hydro power (25%). The government touts nuclear power as the vehicle for the next stage of Indian economic growth. But on current form, even the modest target of extracting 8% of power from nuclear sources by 2020 seems out of reach.
By comparison, about 17% of power worldwide comes from nuclear sources, including 80% in France, 40% or more in eight other countries, and 20% in the US.
“We might be badly short on nuclear fuel,” an official said. “But we are certainly big on talk.”