Uranium projects show India’s nuclear ambition undiminished

May 02, 2012
Uranium ore

India’s Forest and Environment Ministry has given clearance to Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), a Government of India enterprise, to start open-cast uranium mining in Meghalaya, a mountainous and ecologically fragile province in north-east India.

The clearance comes despite decades of opposition to uranium exploration and mining in the province by locals claiming to be victims of radiation and toxic waste resulting from exploratory drillings by UCIL.

The most recent anti-mining protests were triggered by the large-scale death of fish in the Ranikor River, allegedly from toxic waste caused by drilling and dumping into the river but local government authorities ruled out radiation poisoning as the cause. An official claimed miscreants had dumped poisonous materials into the river to create a scare and scuttle the mining project.

UCIL has earmarked an investment of USD229 million to develop the Meghalaya uranium deposits, which India’s Department of Atomic Energy estimates will yield more 19,000 tonnes and maybe as much as 30,000 tonnes.

The company has also commissioned an underground uranium mine and processing plant at Tummalapalle in the Southern Indian province of Andhra Pradesh. The Tummalapalle reserve is estimated to be among the world’s largest, containing at least 49,000 tonnes of uranium and possibly three times as much.

The USD211 million processing plant has a design capability of handling 3,000 tonnes of low-grade ore, containing less than 0.2 percent uranium, per day. A second plant is being planned.

According to UCIL officials, production from the Tummalapalle reserves would be sufficient to fuel 10-GW of nuclear power generating capacity without resorting to imports.

India currently has 17 nuclear reactors with an installed capacity of 4.78-GW and has published ambitious plans to ramp up to 63-GW by 2032. There is, however, a lot of public opposition to the development of nuclear plants, leading to continued delays in the completion of the French-backed 9.9-GW Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in Maharashtra and the 2-GW Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu.

Development of the India’s civilian nuclear power sector has been stymied by an international embargo on the transfer of nuclear fuel and technology following its "peaceful nuclear explosive" in 1974 and on-going refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

After the finalization of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008, India came in from the cold and put the operation of its civilian nuclear reactors under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. This enables it to import uranium supplies from abroad, notably Australia, but it retains a strong focus on developing domestic fuel sources.

As well as exploring for and developing its uranium deposits, India has been making advances in the field of thorium-based nuclear reactor fuels. Both the IAEA and OECD believe that India may actually possess the lion's share of world's thorium deposits. The Government of India's latest estimate, shared in the country's Parliament in August 2011, puts the recoverable thorium reserve at 846,477 tonnes.