For India’s fuel-starved energy sector, the one silver lining is imported uranium. Over the last four years, when an all-pervasive shortage of coal and gas short-circuited electricity generation from the country’s mainstay thermal plants, imported uranium has been coming in thick and fast.
India has bought over Rs 2,600 crore worth of uranium ore concentrate from NAC Kazatomprom of Kazakhstan and natural uranium di-oxide pellets from Russia’s state-owned firm JSC TVEL Corporation since April 2011.
The buoyant uranium imports are showing up in the operational performance of Indian nuclear power plants, which reached their highest levels last fiscal and are headed for a record this year. The capacity factor or operational efficiency of the 20 nuclear power reactors currently running in the country rose to a record 83 per cent in 2013-14.
Augmentation of fuel supplies to the 10 reactors that currently qualify for imported fuel, and the freeing up of domestic fuel production for use in the other 10 that are in operation, have been responsible for the surge in nuclear generation from the country’s reactors, the cumulative capacity of which adds up to 4,780 megawatt electric (MWe).
In quantitative terms, in the last four years, India received a total of 2,215 tonnes of uranium from Kazakhstan and Russia, including a shipment of 118 tonnes from Russia this fiscal. Till March 2011, the country had received 868 tonnes of uranium from France, Russia and Kazakhstan, comprising 300 tonnes of natural uranium concentrate from Areva, 58 tonnes as enriched uranium dioxide pellets from Areva, 210 tonnes as natural uranium oxide pellets from Russia’s TVEL and 300 tonnes as natural uranium from Kazatomprom.
The Department of Atomic Energy reckons the annual fuel requirement for operating the indigenous pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) at 85 per cent capacity is about 45 tonnes of uranium dioxide for the older 220 MWe units, 100 tonnes for the 540 MWe units and 125 tonnes for the new 700 MWe units.
By contrast, the requirement of low enriched uranium for operating the imported light water reactors (LWRs) at 85 per cent capacity factor are 6 tonnes for the older 160 MWe Tarapur units and 27 tonnes for 1,000 MWe units such as the Russian-built units at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.
Under the “separation plan” announced by the government in March 2006, negotiated after the July 2005 nuclear deal with the US, India was required to 14 reactors under