Hyderabad: Public resistance over uranium mining is likely to hobble India’s efforts to boost domestic production of the mineral, even as half the installed capacity at nuclear plants lies unutilized due to a fuel shortage.
The country is facing a shortage of uranium because it has been slow in opening up new mines, Anil Kakodkar, chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, said at an event here on 7 June.
Nuclear imperative:Samples the Atomic Minerals Directorate collected near Peddagattu village in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh
The state-run miner Uranium Corporation of India Ltd, or Ucil, will soon be building a Rs1,129 crore mine and mill at Tummalapalle village in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh that would have a capacity to produce 1,50,000 tonnes of uranium a year, said Kakodkar, who is also the secretary of the department of atomic energy, or DAE.
The government is, however, facing protests by residents and activists, who oppose uranium mining on health and environmental grounds.
Two days after Kakodkar spoke at Hyderabad, residents of Lambapur and Peddagattu villages in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh protested Ucil’s attempts to collect samples.
The Atomic Minerals Directorate, or AMD, the national agency that explores and identifies radioactive mineral deposits in the country before Ucil starts mining activities, has located uranium ore deposits in the two villages.
Indian laws mandate that Ucil conduct public hearing before before setting up mining and processing plants. At various such public hearings, a majority of the participants opposed the projects, say people present in the meetings.
“There was strong police presence at the public hearing (at Kadapa) and several activists were beaten up,” says K. Saraswathi, joint secretary of city-based Forum for Sustainable Development, an NGO that opposes uranium mining. “Those opposed to mining were not even allowed to take part in the hearing.”
“One of our activists in Kadapa even received death threats from the police,” says Ravi Rebbapragada, chairman of Mines, Minerals and People, another NGO. The public hearing at Kadapa was held on 10 September 2006.
There are local protests against uranium mining in other parts of the country, too. Ucil plans to invest more than Rs1,000 crore to set up a mine and ore processing plant in Domiasiat in West Khasi Hills district in Meghalaya, where local organizations protested its project at a public hearing in June last year.
“A few weeks ago, the government created a multi-party committee to look into the issue of uranium mining,” Samuel Jyrwa, president of the influential Khasi Students’ Union, told Mint over the phone. “No matter what the committee decides, we are firmly opposed to uranium mining on our land.”
The Meghalaya People’s Human Rights Council, a non-profit organization, is also opposed to Ucil’s mining plans in the state.
In Nalgonda, where Ucil held public hearings in August 2003, many organizations have banded to form the Movement Against Uranium Project, or MAUP, to oppose the mining projects in the state.
Following the public hearing, People’s War, a radical left-wing movement, abducted several AMD officials from the exploratory site in Nalgonda.
India’s environment and forests ministry, however, gave a clearance to Ucil to go ahead with its project in August 2006, when MAUP filed a public interest litigation at the Andhra Pradesh high court.
MAUP activists allege the public hearings are flawed. For instance, the public hearing for Nalgonda was held at a location far away from the villages and residents had difficulty in reaching the meeting. Also, local activists were not allowed at the hearing, says J. Rama Rao, convener of MAUP.
The high court advised MAUP to approach the appellate authority set up by the environment ministry.
“The matter is pending with the national appellate authority. However, we have learned that the hearing is at its last stages and a favourable decision will be taken in the next two months,” says N.M. Bahl, head of Ucil’s Andhra Pradesh operations.
Ucil is, however, going ahead with its plans in Kadapa despite local protests, and activists allege that it can do so because it is the state’s chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy’s home district.
In Meghalaya, too, the state government favours the implementation of the project, activists allege.
“Such protests are common in any development projects. In our projects, we have dealt with the added burden of fear about radiation,” says S.K. Malhotra, head of public awareness division at DAE. “However, there are processes and procedures to be followed and we are doing it.”
India has an installed nuclear power generation capacity of 4,100MW and is adding 2,600MW capacity to be completed in 2-3 years, according to data available with the Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd, that runs the country’s nuclear power plants.
The DAE has received flak in the recent past for the serious demand and supply mismatch and Ucil has been under increasing pressure to increase domestic production. The department targets producing 20,000MW through nuclear power by 2020.
“With uncertainty regarding the nuclear agreement with the US, uranium availability is a major constraining factor in the nuclear power sector in India,” says Arvind Mahajan, executive director at KPMG Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd.
“Consequently, there is a lot of expectation around India’s internal production. If the mines don’t go on stream, and India is not able to step up its uranium production, then meeting the nuclear power targets is going to be difficult.”
Work on the Rs1,129 crore uranium mine and processing plant at Tummalapalle in Kadapa started in September last year. Ucil expects to commission the project in three years.
Taking lessons from the experience in Kadapa, MAUP activists say they will try to ensure the project in Nalgonda does not take off. They will meet next week to evaluate the situation and to decide the future course, says Jeevananda Reddy of the Forum for Sustainable Development, which is part of the MAUP.
PTI contributed to this story.