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.