M Somasekhar | The Hindu Businessline

The recent announcement that the first unit of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant has gone critical will act as a shot in the arm for the country’s nuclear establishment.

A lot depends on the uranium deposits at Tummalapalle

A lot depends on the uranium deposits at Tummalapalle

After a long-drawn battle, at both the ground level and the courts, the Russian-built, light water reactor is all set to produce electricity and provide some relief to the power-starved southern States. The nuclear power industry in India is poised between uncertainty and hope, the latter fuelled by the nuclear deal and the former by the climate after Fukushima, among other factors.

AMBITIOUS, UNCERTAIN

The Kudankulam 1&2 units of 1000 MW each are being built by Rosatom, a leading Russian nuclear conglomerate. Plans for setting up two more similar units at the site in Tamil Nadu have also been firmed up; this includes funding by the Russians. But commissioning them seems like a long way off.

The development means a step forward for the nuclear power programme through the imported, foreign reactor route. In the initial years of the Atomic Energy programme, the Americans set up the power plant at Tarapur, while the design for several others was based on the Canadians. Post-1974, Pokhran-1, India has been denied technology and resources.

Despite Kudankulam and the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the reality is that India has to depend largely on tapping indigenous sources of natural uranium to fuel its nuclear plants, locate new sites and find funds.

In the short term, one Kudankulam does not appear to trigger a rush of participation of big nuclear players in the growth of the sector. Such optimism, especially from the US and France, in fact, seems to have receded in recent times.

There is considerable opposition to the proposed French plants in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, while the US reactor at Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh is yet to take even ‘baby steps’. The Civil Nuclear Liabilities for Nuclear Damage Act passed in 2010 has also become a bone of contention, with some of the clauses deterring foreign vendors.

POST-DEAL OPTIMISM

At the ground level, India’s nuclear power programme has 20 reactors with an installed capacity of 4800 MW. Kudankulam 1 will add 1000 MW.

But the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) has ambitious plans. Four indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) of 700 MW totalling 2800 MW are being constructed by the NPCIL in other parts of the country; they are expected to be commissioned by 2016-17.

A further 10 of the same size are planned. Which means, domestic reactors of nearly 10,000 MW capacity are in the pipeline. Some of them will be in new locations such as Gorakhpur in Haryana, Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan and Chutka and Bhimpur in Madhya Pradesh. All these efforts demand a huge requirement of natural uranium.

The flurry of expansion of nuclear power has been triggered by the Indo-US nuclear agreement in 2006. It led to easing of restrictions on access to uranium from a few countries and considerable progress in access to technology from the Nuclear Supply Group. Buoyed by the support of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government, the DAE also raised its targets steeply.

The optimism came from a combination of imported reactors — US, France, Russia (of over 1000 MW) — and the clusters or `Nuclear Energy Parks’ of domestic, 700 MW units, including new sites.

The uranium fuel was also to be tied up with supplies from different countries. With even Australia (the largest producer) and Canada showing signs of easing restrictions, the nuclear establishment was upbeat.

Within the country NTPC, BHEL, ONGC, IOC, Indian Railways, SAIL have evinced interest. In the private sector, Reliance, GVK Power, GMR Energy initiated firm steps with dialogues with foreign partners as well.

Indigenous Uranium

The situation has become difficult, especially after the tsunami-induced accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

Scepticism and opposition have risen again against nuclear power globally. In the Indian context, there is a visible slowdown. It is becoming difficult to find new places to set up reactors or open mines where the Atomic Minerals Division (AMD) has unearthed some uranium potential, due to opposition from non-governmental organisations and the local public.

According to the World Nuclear Association, the DAE now seems intent on attaining targets of 14,600 MW by 2020 and 27,500 MW by 2032. The department’s dream is to build 50,000 MW by 2060.

The plan of having 8 PHWRs and 8 imported reactors of a capacity of 1000 MW or higher with foreign technical cooperation to be completed in the next 15 years would require $40 billion, it estimates.

To get anywhere near these figures, it looks certain now that indigenous uranium, especially from Tummalapalle, has to emerge as the mainstay.

Though India has nearly 19 per cent of the world’s thorium and a programme to tap it through the Fast Breeder Reactor (the first is still under construction after three decades of research and trials), exploiting it looks unlikely in the immediate future.

The AMD identified 75,000 tonnes of uranium deposits during the XI Plan period, driven by the big discovery at Tummalapalle. With 72,000 tonnes established, it accounts for nearly half of the total of 150,000 tonnes identified in the country so far, which clearly highlights the criticality of the new finds.

Going by the AMD’s explorations, the area has a further potential of one lakh tonnes.

In the last 50 years, the nuclear power programme has been fuelled mainly from uranium mined from Jaduguda, Bhatin, Narwaphar and Turamdih mines in the Jharkhand region. Imported uranium took care of the Tarapur units. Given all the limitations of resources, funds and opposition, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India ended year 2000 with less than 2000 MW established capacity.

By the time the Indo-US agreement was signed, the country was running out of domestic uranium. It could not open up potential mines in Khasi hills of Meghalaya or Gogi in Karnataka due to opposition. The Turamdih mines were still to start production.

In a way, the access to imports that followed the deal, not just fed the near-starving units but also gave impetus to the expansion programme. With imports from Russia and Kazhakstan, the present programme runs on 60 per cent domestic and 40 per cent imported uranium.

There are other options — to procure from Uzbekistan, Namibia and perhaps Canada and Australia. But here again, there are question marks, based on the political and nuclear relations between the countries. Therefore a clear policy on uranium usage is a must to run a practical and useful energy programme, argue the protagonists of atomic power.

TUMMALAPALLe HOPE

With over a Rs 1,000 crore investment, the Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (the mining arm of DAE), has established a mill, a processing plant, among other facilities, at Tummalapalle.

The plant uses an innovative alkali leaching technique developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to convert the ore into yellow cake. Conventionally, acid leaching is employed in processing plants such as those in Jaduguda and Turamdih in Jharkhand.

The Hyderabad-based Nuclear Fuel Complex has received the first consignment from the mines in February. It got a recovery comparable with Jaduguda or Turamdih mines, but the processing time is more. The NFC converts this fuel into bundles that are sent to the PHWRs, the mainstay of the Indian programme.

With the capacity to produce 3,000 tonnes per day of low grade uranium ore, the optimists are confident of building a stockpile to feed the indigenous expansion programme. At present, the UCIL produces about 5,500 tonnes per day from its seven existing mines. A lot then depends on Tummalapalle.