08/06/2008 - 08:39

India's nuclear fuel shortage

Surendra Gadekar

Surendra Gadekar

A well-known Indian nuclear activist and physicist, Gadekar lives in the remote tribal village of Vedchhi near the Kakrapar atomic power plant in the western Indian state of Gujarat. There, with...

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India is suffering from a severe uranium fuel shortage due to a lack of domestic uranium, which has held up its ambitious nuclear energy program. Without uranium fuel, its existing reactors have run at partial capacity producing less electricity and new plants have been delayed repeatedly.

For 40 years India has managed its own nuclear energy and weapons infrastructure outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) framework, struggling to overcome its exclusion from international nuclear trade. The controversial U.S.-India nuclear deal could solve New Delhi's fuel shortage. But its longstanding dream of a sophisticated nuclear economy based on a thorium fuel cycle and advanced breeder reactors may remain a pipe dream.

Despite an extraordinary investment of money and resources, nuclear energy is a small blip on India's energy horizon, providing barely 3 percent of the electricity produced in the country. At the same time, in some regions, transmission and distribution losses in the electrical grid surpass 30 percent.

Despite its miniscule contribution, nuclear energy looms large in the minds of Indian elites. All significant parties across the political spectrum support it. And popular sentiment among English-speaking Indians is that without persistently large investment in nuclear energy, the country would be doomed. Veerappa Moily, a mid-level leader of the ruling Congress Party and former chief minister of the southern Karnataka state, recently called nuclear power "the lifeline of the country."

New Delhi's fascination with nuclear energy goes back a long way. In 1948, India became the first Asian country to establish an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). A year later when the Rare Materials Division was folded into the AEC, a frantic search for uranium and other nuclear-related minerals began. By 1951, uranium deposits had been found at Jaduguda in the eastern state of Jharkhand about 20 miles west of the industrial city of Tatanagar. The country's first research reactor in Mumbai was up and running by 1956, and by the early 1960s, India was ready to embark upon large-scale nuclear power production.

At this point, New Delhi was confronted with two choices: Build the more common U.S. light water reactor design or the untested Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactor. Ultimately, the CANDU was chosen because it used natural uranium for fuel, and India didn't have enrichment facilities. The Indian government correctly believed that the problems of manufacturing heavy water were more tractable than acquiring uranium enrichment capabilities.

Self-reliance was the declared cornerstone of the Indian nuclear enterprise--a truly Herculean effort. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, nuclear energy consumed almost one-third of the entire Indian research budget. Instrumentation, fuel fabrication, metallurgy of materials, and reactor design were all indigenously developed.

Of course, its interest in nuclear power extended beyond peaceful power generation. Despite many protests to the contrary, the Indian government understood that nuclear power was a dual-use technology that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. The CANDU's online refueling capability--the ability to add new fuel and remove spent fuel including plutonium without shutting the reactor down--was particularly attractive because it allowed for ambiguity regarding future weapons research. But in those early years, India made no direct effort toward bomb production--despite covert U.S. encouragement and the first Chinese nuclear test in 1964.

In spite of strenuous efforts at uranium exploration, India couldn't find domestic ore bodies with uranium at the minimum economically exploitable concentration--about 1,000 parts per million (0.1 percent). The average concentration of Jaduguda ore was found to contain a measly 0.06 to 0.07 percent uranium. (For comparison, Canadian mines contain up to 20 percent uranium ore.) On the other hand, India discovered that it possesses almost 25 percent of the world's high-quality thorium deposits--the basis for a proposed alternative nuclear fuel cycle. To take advantage of these reserves, Homi J. Bhabha, the father of the Indian nuclear program, formulated a three-stage action plan to develop nuclear power in the country.

In the first stage, CANDU reactors were to be built along with reprocessing plants to recover the plutonium in the spent fuel. Next, a generation of fast breeder reactors would be developed, eventually leading to the third stage where India's vast thorium reserves would be used in a thorium-uranium fuel cycle, fostering an era of energy surplus and economic bounty. Bhabha prophesied in 1962 that by 1987 India would have 20,000 to 25,000 megawatts of nuclear-generated electric capacity. His prediction missed badly; by 1987, India had built only 1,320 megawatts of nuclear-generated electric capacity due in part to its international isolation.

Its 1974 nuclear test, which the Indian government claimed was an explosion of a "peaceful nuclear device," caused India to become a pariah. As such, it was unable to legally obtain nuclear materials from abroad, completely derailing New Delhi's ambitious nuclear energy plans.

Thus, nuclear self-reliance became not just a slogan, but a necessity. Domestic sources of uranium were mined starting in 1967. The Uranium Corporation of India Ltd. (UCIL) established a uranium mill at Jaduguda a year later, with a 1,000 ton-per-day raw ore processing capacity. (This would normally produce 200 tons of pure uranium annually with ore concentrations at 0.067 percent and assuming 300 days of operation a year.) In addition, uranium recovery from copper tailings began at the Hindustan Copper Limited mines at Surda in 1975, Rakha in 1983, and Musabeni in 1986, all of which are within 30 miles of Jaduguda.

With long delays in construction times for reactors due to international sanctions and inexperience and technical problems at completed plants that led to low electricity output, the mining resulted in a surplus stockpile of uranium.

Then, in the early 1990s, government support for nuclear power turned lukewarm. As India's economy opened due to globalization, even the historically pro-nuclear political establishment started saying that nuclear power had to justify its existence by its economic performance compared with other less expensive energy sources.

But after the 1998 nuclear test at Pokaran, Indian nuclear power received a new lease on life. Funding for nuclear projects increased, as did nuclear know-how. The performance of existing power plants improved noticeably and the construction times of new plants became distinctly shorter. Yet, the uranium-mining arm of the Department of Atomic Energy didn't adjust for these improvements and the growing demand for uranium fuel. This has resulted in the nuclear fuel shortage.

Besides the site at Jaduguda, in Jharkhand state, the Atomic Minerals Division discovered uranium at Bhatin, Narwapahar, Banduhurang, Badjata, Turamdih, and Mohuldih in the late 1960s. Mines at Bhatin and Narwapahar were opened in 1986 and 1995 respectively, and the capacity of the uranium mill at Jaduguda was increased in two stages to 2,090 tons per day in 1997.

UCIL, which develops the mines discovered by the Atomic Minerals Division, began constructing a mine at Turamdih in 1989, but abandoned all work there three years later when it was decided that the ore quality was too poor to continue. Mining began again in late 2005, when the country became desperate for uranium ore of any quality, with a 3,000-ton-per-day milling facility commissioned in 2007. An adjacent mine at Banduhurang started operation in 2007 as well.

Uranium ores at similarly low concentrations have been found throughout India, the best among them (reportedly 0.08 percent) at Domiasiat, a few miles from the Bangladesh border. Other sites where UCIL is active include the Nalgonda and Cuddappa districts of southeastern Andhra Pradesh and the Gulbarga district of the southern state of Karnataka.

But despite strenuous efforts, mining production hasn't begun in any of these locations. UCIL officials have blamed the delays on a "small section of people" raising environmental concerns. Yet, this seems unlikely since the Indian government has effectively ridden roughshod over the concerns of sizable, well-organized groups against large dam and power projects. The more likely reason is that despite the critical uranium shortage, UCIL officers are unwilling to work in remote areas where the Indian government is facing a Maoist insurgency. A large tract spanning the remote areas of the eastern states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and Andhra Pradesh have serious law-and-order problems. In Meghalaya, although there isn't an overt insurgency, there's great resentment against "outsiders" who have removed local tribal families from their land.

Nor do the government's claims of 600 to 700 parts per million ore concentrations (0.06–0.07 percent) at Jaduguda seem feasible. A metric ton of uranium produces around 50 million units of electricity in a CANDU reactor. Until recently, the total reported nuclear electricity generation in all of the country's CANDU reactors since they were first constructed has been around 200,000 million units, implying that about 4,000 tons of uranium fuel was consumed. If the ore was anywhere near 0.067 percent, the Jaduguda mines should have produced at least 8,000 tons of uranium over the last 40 years. Therefore, even taking into consideration uranium diverted for making bombs, uranium scarcity shouldn't be an issue.

Since data provided by the Indian atomic establishment is usually unreliable, it's difficult to ascertain the root cause of the production problem. UCIL's willingness to mine large quantities of poorer quality ore--roughly 0.02 percent at Turamdih and other new mines in Jharkhand--lends credence to the claim that India doesn't have easily accessible higher-quality ores. And the present uranium crunch implies that even the ore quality at Jaduguda hasn't been better than 0.03 percent for many years.

Obviously, it ought to be cheaper to import uranium from abroad--something that the controversial U.S.-India deal would allow. But many steps remain before the agreement can come into force. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors must approve the India-specific safeguards agreement, allowing New Delhi to place its civilian nuclear plants under international monitoring, while keeping its military facilities unmonitored. Then the Nuclear Suppliers Group must agree to make an exception in its rules, permitting its members to engage in nuclear trade with India even though New Delhi hasn't signed the NPT. After that, the U.S. president will have to certify that the IAEA has approved the plan before sending the deal to Congress for a vote.

Although the deal will allow for the import of nuclear materials and technology, India's right- and left-wing political parties oppose it: The Right is against the deal because it would limit further nuclear testing, while the Left fears it would make India even more subservient to U.S. interests. For its part, the Indian nuclear establishment would like nothing better than to import only uranium and continue to build its own reactors. But this seems unlikely.

As part of the deal, India would import uranium and the attendant nuclear technology from foreign companies and states. The enthusiasm for the deal in the United States, France, and other countries comes from their moribund nuclear construction industries, which need new reactor orders to survive. The deal is certainly not an economic move for New Delhi--the cost of the nuclear electricity produced by imported reactors would likely be 50 percent more expensive than the electricity produced by Indian-designed nuclear reactors. But the present Indian leadership is willing to pay this price in order to end decades of international nuclear isolation, and because they feel it will lead to a closer strategic relationship with Washington.

In the near term, India's nuclear plants will likely continue to run at reduced capacity--with problematic plants likely to stay shut down to conserve scarce uranium--while the commissioning of new plants will remain delayed. As uranium fuel availability increases with production at the new mills, the overall electricity production at nuclear plants should also increase. If the U.S.-India deal does go through and international uranium becomes available to New Delhi, the immediate uranium crunch will be eased. Still, Indian uranium may be a competitive choice because of rocketing world uranium prices and the low wages paid to Indian miners.

Nonetheless, the Indian dream of a nuclear capacity of 275,000 megawatts by mid-century is wildly optimistic. (It's presently 4,000 megawatts.) For such an aggressive projection to become a reality, the plan for a future fleet of breeder reactors and thorium technology must be successful without any hiccups. It's also a case of badly skewed priorities; India's true energy crisis lies in its inability to harness its sunlight and biomass, which would provide a truly useful resource for the majority of its people.