Parliamentary panel recommends large-scale import of uranium, report likely to be tabled during Winter Session
A parliamentary panel, headed by Murli Manohar Joshi, has recommended that government should mount diplomatic efforts to increase import of uranium.
New Delhi: A parliamentary panel, headed by veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, has recommended that government should mount diplomatic efforts to increase import of uranium, and the equipment and technology to power the country’s nuclear energy sector.
In its report on the import of uranium for nuclear plants, the committee has expressed its concern that despite Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with at least 15 countries, the import of uranium is limited to only few countries like Russia, Canada and Kazakhstan, sources aware of the content of the report of the committee on estimates told Firstpost.
Since no uranium is being imported from leading producers such as Uzbekistan and Namibia, the committee observed it is high time to have multiple sources of uranium supply to mitigate future uncertainties as Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) aims to maintain stock of 15,000 metric tonnes of uranium that would be sufficient for 22 reactors for the next 15 years. The report is likely to be tabled in the Parliament during the ongoing Winter Session.
The government has cleared at least ten more pressurised heavy water reactors, which will require about 1,250 metric tonnes of natural uranium dioxide fuel. Of the 22 reactors with a capacity of 6,780 MW in operation, 14 reactors with a capacity of 4,380 MW are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and are fueled by imported uranium. The other eight reactors with a total capacity of 2,400 MW are fueled by indigenous uranium. The government is making all efforts to augment indigenous uranium supply by opening new mines and processing facilities, parliamentary panel sources told Firstpost.
Jaduguda mines in Jharkhand are the largest producer of uranium, although they are quite old and require greatest depth — around 800 metres — mining. According to DAE, for extracting uranium from domestic mines, they need to go 500 metres below the ground. This adds to the cost and a comparison with import seems to be nonviable. Sources said the richness of domestically-mined uranium is also very low in comparison to countries like Australia and Canada.
Atomic Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD) has launched sustained multi-parametric exploration activities in six areas including Bhima basin of Karnataka, Mahadek basin of Meghalaya, Cuddapah in Andhra Pradesh, Singhbhum in Jharkhand, North Delhi fold belt in Rajasthan, Haryana and Dharmapuri Shear Zone in Tamil Nadu. Besides, AMD is also actively looking at Satpura Gondwana basin of Madhya Pradesh, Siwalik basin in Himachal Pradesh and Dongargarh belt of Chhattisgarh.
As far as delay in import of uranium from Uzbekistan is concerned, the DAE has cited that pick up and transportation was a major hurdle since it is a landlocked country. The DAE had signed a contract with Uzbek company Navoi Mining and Metallurgical Combinat State Company (NMMC) for import of 2,000 MT of uranium ore concentrate spreading over the years 2014-18. Due to transportation issue, the contract could not be executed, though DAE is willing to negotiate a fresh agreement with Uzbekistan.
On 15 April, 2015, an agreement was signed with ‘Cameco Inc Canada’ for procurement of 3,000 metric tonnes of uranium ore concentrate spread over a period of six years, starting from 2015 to 2020. The Canadian firm has supplied 2,471 metric tonnes of uranium during 2015, 2016 and 2017. In Kazakhstan, a firm called Kazatomprom signed a contract on 8 July, 2015 to supply 5,000 metric tonnes uranium for a period of 5 years. The Kazakhstan firm has already supplied 3,413 metric tonnes in 2015, 2016 and 2017 and expected to transport another 1,500 metric tonnes by the end of this year.
Nuclear power reactors placed under the IAEA safeguards are eligible for uranium supplies from outside India, though the international market for uranium is relatively volatile. Despite opening up of international civil nuclear trade in fuel and technology, India is facing considerable constraints in accessing the world’s uranium. Bilateral agreement is being executed to ensure unhindered supply.
The panel has recommended adequate budgetary allocation for DAE so that expansion of nuclear power generation gains momentum. The DAE was allocated Rs 13,971 crore in 2018-19 in the budget, which is 5.7 percent more than the previous budget. The department is seeking continuous funding of at least Rs 15,000 crore per year to meet all the requirements. Since thorium reserves in the country are among the largest in the world, the DAE is working on a plan to use it as part of a long-term nuclear power programme.
The parliamentary panel finding is most concerned about the the shortage of manpower in Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), the nodal agency in the country for ensuring safety of all atomic power plants. The sanctioned staff strength was 459 against the total staff in position of 326, which is about 29 percent of its total strength. The panel has asked both DAE and AERB to immediately take urgent steps to fill the vacancies, committee sources told Firstpost.
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