No stock, nuclear energy programme in crisis
Scraping the barrel
A uranium drought haunts India's nuclear programme. And in the rush to end this scarcity, UCIL has failed in gaining people's confidence. The country's current nuclear power generation is entirely dependent on natural uranium (see chart: All reactions delayed), which fuels 12 pressurised heavy water reactors and all research projects.
All this uranium comes from Jaduguda mines, whose output is 150 tonnes per year. J L Bhasin, a former chairperson and managing director of UCIL, had said in 2000 if the demands of eight reactors currently under construction are considered, India had enough uranium only till this year.
India's nuclear power plan is already 15 years behind the targets set for energy production. DAE fears that the uranium scarcity and protests can further delay the programme. While setting targets for nuclear power generation, the government in 1985 had assumed that all identified uranium reserves would be explored. No new mines have come up and the government is now panicking. According to information based on questions asked in Parliament, India needs about 450-500 tonnes of uranium oxide (processed uranium ore) every year for the current level of power generation and research (which sources put at 25 per cent of total uranium need).
The scarcity threatens to halt the second-generation fast breeder reactor (FBR) programme based on plutonium, which is derived from uranium used in the present thermal nuclear reactors. "Without uranium, we can't run the nuclear establishment and achieve the targeted 10,000 MW power in the first stage of nuclear power generation," says P V Dubey, UCIL's company secretary. The fast breeder reactors are supposed to produce another 10,000 MW of power by 2020, but R K Sharma, head of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre's (BARC) public awareness division, admits: "It will take about 10 years before we can switch to FBRs." India doesn't have 50 per cent of the uranium it needs and the shortfall could become 70 per cent. The government had in 1983 estimated that by using 73,000 tonnes of uranium reserve, India could produce 10,000 MW of nuclear power till 2000. Till last year, the country could only produce 2,720 MW of nuclear power and the 10,000 MW target has now been revised to 2010.
The government is so desperate that it is extracting uranium from any source possible. The ore at Jaduguda has just 0.06 percent uranium content but even to get this bit mines have been dug 905 m below the surface. The Jaduguda mines, which were started in 1967, were supposed to last for 15 years but officials say they won't abandon it for another 30 years. Spending Rs 200 crore, UCIL is extracting uranium from copper tailings at four 100 year old and closed copper mines at Surda and Rakha. An estimated Rs 15,000 crore has been spent on all these mines. "It is definitely becoming extremely expensive as we dig deeper and deeper to extract less and less," says P P Sharma, superintendent of geology, UCIL.
However, undeterred by these problems the government is determined to generate 20,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020. "Aggressively build capabilities and capacity in nuclear power to progressively raise its share in India's fuel mix," says the Tenth Five Year Plan that hawks for more nuclear energy. To achieve this, it suggests partial privatisation of nuclear power generation and market financing for projects. And for this it will extract uranium at any cost. As R Sreedhar, a former geologist with the Atomic Mineral Division, says: "The government was never transparent in its acts and now it wants to bypass the people for access to mines."
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