New beginning: uranium imports from Apr

New beginning: uranium imports from Apr

New Delhi: India will receive its first uranium imports in three decades from countries such as France and Canada by April, ending the isolation from nuclear commerce that ensued from its first atomic test.

The imports are expected to boost power capacity at the country’s 17 reactors by at least 17%, or 700MW. The reactors are now operating at 46% of their capacity because of a shortage of uranium, the fuel that powers them.

“It (imports) will ease the fuel shortage at nuclear power units," minister of state for power and commerce Jairam Ramesh said.

The imports will be the first nuclear fuel destined for India since it detonated an atomic device in Pokhran in May 1974. The Nuclear Suppliers Group in September allowed India entry into nuclear commerce, waiving a requirement for it to sign international non-proliferation pacts and opening up a potentially lucrative market for nuclear energy companies.

The uranium imports are meant for the Rajasthan units of state-owned Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd, or NPCIL, whose Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS)—located at Rawatbhata in Kota district —has a total capacity of 740MW.

India, which has an installed nuclear power capacity of 4,120MW, plans to boost it by almost five times by 2020 as it tries to close the gap between galloping energy demand and deficient supply. The country’s installed power generation capacity is around 145,000MW. But a significant portion of this capacity is idling because of scarcity of fuels such as coal, gas and uranium.

Coal-based generation accounts for 76,000MW, while the country’s gas-based capacity is 14,600MW, which is operating at 52% efficiency.

“Power projects today are facing a shortage of power and gas. If we had enough gas and uranium, around 9,500MW power generation can immediately enter the system. While the demand requirement is 2.1 billion units, availability is 1.85 billion units," Ramesh said.

By 2012, NPCIL plans to create additional nuclear power generating capacity of 3,160MW, with six reactors under construction. India’s uranium reserves are estimated to be some 78,000 tonnes— around 0.8% of the world’s reserves—which can support around 10,000MW of generation.

But delays in uranium mining projects have resulted in a demand-supply mismatch.

While nuclear power plants can be set up only by NPCIL, uranium can be mined only by Uranium Corp. of India Ltd. With the proposed entry of hydrocarbon exploration firms such as Oil India Ltd and Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd, uranium mining is expected to increase in the country.

However, some experts say that India’s domestic uranium is “limited and not of the highest quality".

“Yes, we do have a lot of thorium (a slightly radioactive metal that is considered as an alternative fuel to uranium), but we will have to convert it into fissile material before usage," said R. Rajaraman, professor emeritus of theoretical physics, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Fissile material is one capable of fuelling nuclear reactors.

According to audit and consulting firm KPMG’s India Energy Outlook report, India’s department of atomic energy hopes to build 250,000MW of nuclear capacity by 2050 to meet the country’s long-term power requirements.