The prospects of increasing domestic production of uranium fuel for our nuclear power plants are not bleak as is being made out by lobbyists for Indo-US atomic deal.
This fact is evident from recent initiatives for extraction of uranium by public sector undertakings (PSUs). The UPA government, of course, does not want to mention it publicly to avoid annoying Uncle Sam.
UPA'sfailure to articulate self-reliance initiatives has emboldened vested interest to derail India'snuclear deterrent strategy that was affirmed by BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the late nineties.
The most innovative initiative that has virtually been pushed under the carpet by UPA is a technology demonstration plant (TDP) to extract uranium from phosphoric acid. This is in addition to other measures such as environmental clearances to two greenfield uranium mining projects.
The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) would set up TDP within the production complex of Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers (RCF) at Chembur in Mumbai at a cost of Rs 31.9 crore.
TDP would be located adjacent to wet phosphoric acid (WPA) plant. It would have capacity to produce 4.5 tonnes per annum (tpa) of uranium in the form of ammonium di-uranate (ADU). This material would be processed further by DAE'snuclear fuel complex at Hyderabad to prepare enriched uranium that can be readily used by nuclear power plants.
TDP has found favour with a committee of environmental experts for appraisal of industrial projects constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The committee recommended this project for environmental approval at its meeting held during 20-22 February, 2008.
DAE has identified five phosphoric acid plants inclusive of RCF that have potential to yield 400 tpa of uranium. The four other phosphoric acid plants are Paradeep plant of Indian Farmers Fertilizers Cooperative (IFFCO), Haldia plant of Tata Chemicals Limited, Tuticorin plant of Southern Petrochemical Industries Corporation (SPIC), Vizag plant of Coromandel Fertilisers and Paradeep plant of Paradeep Phosphates Limited.
There are a few more phosphoric acid plants such as the ones operated by Gujarat State Chemicals and Fertiliers (GSFC) and Gujarat Narmada Valley Fertilisers Company (GNFC). A few more such projects are on the anvil.
The opportunity to extract uranium from phosphoric acid is thus much more than that available in five plants identified by DAE.
An industry analyst wondered why UPA government could not implement all projects for extraction of uranium from phosphoric acid in the fast-track format.
Enthused by expert committee'srecommendation, RCF last month issued a tender notice for setting up TDP.
RCF, a public sector undertaking has played safe by avoiding the word uranium in its tender documents. Instead of uranium, it has used the word yellow cake, which is nothing but uranium concentrate.
The tender document says: ?RCF is setting up a TDP plant for phosphoric acid cleanup within its existing facility at Chembur. As a part of TDP, it is proposed to install yellow cake unit (YC unit).?
RCF says the selected bidder would have to install YC unit based on the specifications mentioned in tender document. The company has even specified the equipment manufacturers from whom the bidder should source machinery required to engineer and assemble the TDP.
Uranium supply from traditional mining route is also expected to improve following grant of environmental clearances from greenfield mining projects.
In December 2007, Ministry of Environment & Forests gave the go-ahead to Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) to mine and process uranium ore in West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya.
The project costing Rs 814.66 crore would comprise opencast mining of 375,000 tpa of uranium ore and setting-up of 1500 tonnes/day ore processing plant.
The ore processing plant would be located five kilometres away from mining lease area.
Earlier in March 2007, UCIL had obtained environmental approval to open a new mine for production of 150,000 tpa of uranium ore in Saraikela-Kharsawan district of Jharkhand.
The Rs 90.31-crore project provides for transportation of ore to a process plant at Turamdih, located 4.5 kilometres from the mining site.
To speed up uranium mining, UCIL is resorting to outsourcing of mining activities as well as exploring joint venture options for developing new mines as well as prospecting uranium at home and abroad.
As put by UCIL, ?The corporation aims to deepen the existing mines, expand its processing facility, open new mines in the Singhbhum Thrust Belt and other parts of the country. The company is on the verge of opening new deposits in Meghalaya, Lambapur-Peddagattu in Andhra Pradesh, Bagjata and Banduburang in Jharkhand. The coming years would thus see a quantum leap in UCIL'sactivities?.?
Uranium mining has gone through a long patch of Governmental neglect and paltry investments, thereby accentuating shortage of uranium fuel, which, in turn, was used as justification by lobbyists for Indo-American nuclear deal.
Keeping in view the fact that India is saddled with low-grade uranium reserves, India has been pursuing three-stage development of nuclear power. The first stage of natural uranium-based pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) has reached the maturity stage with more than dozen reactors operating well and a few more under implementation.
The second stage provides for building plutonium-based fast breeder reactors (FBRs). After having successfully passed the demonstration stage, it is entering the commercial stage. The first 500-megawatt prototype FBR is slated to go on stream in 2010.
Plutonium is obtained by reprocessing spent fuel from uranium reactors. FBRs also generate more plutonium by recycling spent uranium. The use of thorium as blanket material in FBRs facilitates production of uranium 233 isotope. India has about a third of world'sthorium reserves.
The third stage provides for setting-up of thorium-uranium 233-based reactors, which is still at the blueprint stage.
Analysts fear that the second and third stage would be relegated to history once the Indo-US atomic deal is signed, thereby paving the way for massive import of uranium reactors and Indian and foreign private investment in atomic power sector.
And with this, India'sdesire to strengthen national security through nuclear deterrent would get smothered for all practical purposes.