Hundreds of kilometres apart, two mines in two corners of India tell the story of why the country went shopping abroad for nuclear fuel.
The story of the mismanagement of two major projects — Turamdih mines in Jharkhand and Domiasiat mines in Meghalaya — is also a larger saga of how the Indian atomic energy sat on huge reserves, while nuclear plants went low on fuel.
The fuel shortage was looming large by the mid-90s. But officials at the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) are seen as having pushed Domiasiat, which has some of the best uranium reserves in India, under the carpet for as long as they could. As one official put it: “The feeling was: things did not move so that they would not have to go to some godforsaken jungle to work.”
The reserves in Domiasiat, 130 km south of Shillong in a rain-soaked region, were discovered in 1984 by the Atomic Minerals Division (AMD). After they were handed over to the UCIL in 1991, even a final project report was not ready a decade later.
“We plan to start a mine and process plant in Meghalaya and are waiting for the government’s approval even though the environmental clearance has come in,” Ramendra Gupta, UCIL’s chairman-cum-managing director, told the Hindustan Times.
Turamdih is located in Jharkhand’s Singhbhum region, across rolling green pastures and crisscrossed by the Swarnarekha River. Anil Kakodkar, secretary in the Department of Atomic Energy, unveiled a black marble plaque and inaugurated the mine here in 2002, Gupta by his side.
But it wasn’t exactly an inauguration.
The AMD officials discovered uranium deposits in Turamdih as far back as 1969. UCIL began constructing the mine in 1989, but in 1992, the mine was abruptly shut down. Gupta said the mine was shut down because UCIL had enough fuel for power plants; because Turamdih was considered a poor mine, there was a financial crunch — and mines were coming up in Meghalaya anyway.
UCIL kept it shut over the next 10 years, even though by the mid-1990s, the Nuclear Power Corporation had perfected the art of making reactors indigenously. So, new nuclear power plants were about to be built, and there was no uranium to run them, and yet, officials did not respond to the spiralling crisis.
Years later, in 2002, it was finally decided to reopen Turamdih. Mining began only late last year, but milling facilities — to crush the uranium to be made into fuel — are still not ready. “If they had not closed down Turamdih or taken a bold decision to start work in Domiasiat, things might have been different, but perhaps they had their problems,” AMD director Anjan Chaki told HT.