The uranium at home

India must develop domestic supplies of nuclear fuel

Compared to what is available from international suppliers, the quality of uranium ore available in India is of a lower grade. If the international market in nuclear fuel was not controlled by an inherently closed clique, the case for India to develop domestic sources of nuclear fuel would have been ambiguous. But even as India’s transformed ties with the United States promises access to international supplies, such supplies will remain contingent on the prevailing geopolitical winds. It is a similar story for oil and natural gas. Extracting and processing domestic uranium ore then, must be pursued with significant determination.

Mining uranium though is mired in controversy. The government’s own initiatives to build mines and processing plants have been unremarkable. In turn, various leftist, peacenik and green groups — some of who oppose everything nuclear anyway — have seized on the failings of the state’s bureaucratic handling of land acquisition and environmental clearances as the main argument against developing domestic sources of nuclear fuel.

That the Indian government finds it tough to start or expand uranium mines or processing facilities suggests that institutional mechanisms are working to ensure that such a decision is accorded the gravity it deserves. But too much red tape has the perverse effect of leading project managers to bend rules to meet deadlines. Not only does the government need to evolve a policy framework to acquire land, adequately compensate owners and manage environmental issues, it also needs to provide political leadership for the process. It is important for the political leadership at the central, state and local levels to be aligned. This is something that the bureaucrats at the atomic energy department or the state-owned uranium mining company simply can’t provide.

Opponents of uranium mining fall into two camps: those who are opposed to nuclear power, nuclear weapons and mining in general, and those who argue that mines and processing plants must be adequately safeguarded. Attempting to convince those in the first camp is a fruitless exercise. But it is important to address the concerns of the second camp under whose practical objections the anti-nuclear lobby has long masked its own ideological arguments. India will be the better off for adopting the highest levels of safety and environmental standards.

6 thoughts on “The uranium at home”

  1. Plus: Develop alternate arrangements of conventional and nuclear energy (Thorium reactors, etc.)

    Lots of words are lost between oil\gas and nuclear energy, but not much is being done to harness alternate dependable sources of energy

  2. I read somewhere that India has lot of Plutonium. I’d say instead of spending too much effort on producing low grade Uranium it makes sense to pursue Plutonium based nuclear technology (which I actually think India’s nuclear fissure material is based on).

    Also, a lot of the extreme environmentalists are becoming nuclear energy converts mainly because of green house gases concerns. I think it’s primarily in US but because ideas trickle down faster to other countries from US (rather than other way round), Indian environmental extremists, who seem to oppose any project related to power generation despite the huge gap between need and capacity, may come around soon.

  3. Question:

    Isnt it more like we need (or rather intende to use) thorium, than Uranium and those new fangled reactors as well as our reactor programme is envisoned in such a way that we use up thorium than uranium or plutonium? the stages from the basic reactor to the FBRs?

  4. Prasanna,

    You are right. According to this source India has the second largest reserves of extractable thorium. But I think the older reactors still use uranium.

  5. I think even for FBR you need minimal quantities of U for starting the process, plus the HEU for weapons system. AEC has estimated with our present reserves, we can satisfy max 10GW of electricity prod (upperlimit 15-20 GW). Plus, FBR reactors are small producing 200MW/plant where was with GE or Areva’s pebble-bed tech, one can get 1500MW or 2000MW per plant => better scalability, more affordable.

  6. I stand corrected. Plutonium occurs only as trace element in nature (it is used in Indian weapons and is obtained as the by-product from an Uranium isotope fission, as opposed to Pakistan, and apparently China, and its customers which use or tried to use enriched uranium isotope to build weapons). As Prasanna and Nitan point out, India is abundant in thorium and was the first country to build two power stations using thorium fuel.

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