Uranium in India: Availability, Use and Controls

ISSSP Reflections No. 27, June 22, 2015

Author: LV Krishnan


Report Review of “Governing Uranium in India” by Rajiv Nayan, Danish Institute For International Studies, DIIS Report 2015:02, May 2015

Available for free download at: DIIS Report: Governing Uranium in India

This unique report is a comprehensive document published by the Danish Institute of International Studies (DIIS), as part of the Governing Uranium Project, led by DIIS.

The Report serves as an extremely useful reference work as it provides extensive information on uranium production, import and use in India. Specifically, it describes in great detail the arrangements in place to ensure safety and security at all of the fuel cycle stages, in conformity with world norms.

Tarapur Nuclear Power Plant: The Hindu File Photo
Tarapur Nuclear Power Plant: The Hindu File Photo

The author has systematically scoured official sources of information to provide a wealth of relevant and valuable data. He draws attention to the absence of separation of uranium mines between civil and strategic end use but observes that nuclear weapons production is not an endless activity.

India generates 75% of nuclear electricity through natural uranium fuelled Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). There are 17 such reactors of a rather small capacity (220 MWe) in operation now.  There are also plans to add more PHWRs of larger capacity (700 MWe) since there is a complete indigenous technology base for design and construction of this type of reactors.

Some years ago, the extent of indigenous uranium resources was estimated at about 60,000 Te. If all of it is harvested, it could support about 13 reactors of 700 MWe capacity for about 50 years, which is the expected life of a reactor. Present estimates of indigenous uranium resources are about three times larger. They are of low grade, mostly less than 0.1% uranium content in the ore material. They occur in many parts of India other than Jharkhand. They can support about 30,000 MWe of nuclear power through the PHWRs.

The currently operating PHWRs with a total capacity of 4360 MWe require under 1,000 tons of natural uranium per year. About half of this is needed to fuel those reactors under Safeguards. It is likely that more may come under Safeguards if indigenous uranium production falls short.

According to current plans, India may well have about twenty five 700 MWe PHWRs in another 25 years. Absent accelerated growth in indigenous uranium production, dependence on import of natural uranium will continue.

One would think that uranium mining technology is far less complex than designing and building safe and reliable nuclear reactors. Yet, the country was far more successful in the latter venture. A stage was reached when uranium production fell short and reactors could not operate to full capacity without uranium imports. The Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the US enabled this.

India presently purchases uranium, as ore concentrate as well as ready made fuel pellets for reactors, from France, Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. There is hope that Australia and Canada can be added as possible sources. There are also plans to acquire a stake in uranium mines abroad.    

Reactors operating with imported uranium were placed under International Safeguards. India signed and ratified the Additional Protocol of IAEA. This entailed accounting of imported natural uranium as it passed through various stages of the fuel cycle just as is being done for Lightly Enriched Uranium (LEU) supplies for the Light Water Reactors (LWRs) in Tarapur and Kudankulam. Wide ranging legislation has been passed in India to ensure safety and security of nuclear material. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act is a more recent addition.

This gamut of legislation also enables import of LEU for 24 LWRs that could be added in the presently acquired or announced sites over the next 25 years. An estimated 500 Tons per year of LEU is the quantum of import that would be needed, equivalent to about 3,400 tons of natural uranium.    

Much before signing the cooperation agreement with the US, India became a signatory to the IAEA Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and 2005 Amendment as also the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

About the Author

LV Krishnan retired as Director of Safety Research and Health Physics Programmes at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam in 1997. He is Adjunct Faculty, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies.

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