Two Australian companies BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest mining company, and Heathgate Resources, an affiliate of US company General Atomics, are in discussions with the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) for exporting uranium to India.
A sales contract for enabling the transfer, which is part of the ongoing commercial negotiations between Australian uranium vendors and India’s DAE on fuel contracts for civil nuclear-power generation, is currently under discussion, officials indicated.
Once the contract is wrapped up, Australian companies could potentially join utilities from four other countries that are already supplying nuclear fuel to India.
Incidentally, in July 2017, Australia had sent its first uranium shipment to India but that was “a small sample of uranium” transferred “purely for testing purposes,” according to a statement by the Australian government.
Imported uranium from Australia, as and when despatches start, would be used to meet fuel requirements of Indian nuclear reactors that are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, as is the case with fuel imports that have come in so far from Russia’s JSC TVEL Corp, Kazakhstan’s JSC NAC KazatomProm, France’s Areva and Canada’s Cameco.
In India, there are currently 22 reactors with an installed capacity of 6,780 MWe (mega watt electrical), of which, eight reactors with aggregate capacity of 2,400 MWe are fuelled by indigenous uranium while the remaining 14 with a capacity of 4,380 MWe are under IAEA Safeguards and qualify to use imported uranium.
A steady supply of uranium is good news for the country’s nuclear power sector, something that is expected to boost the performance of Indian nuclear power plants, as well as of several fuel cycle facilities.
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had signed an agreement with Prime Minister Narendra Modi for civil nuclear cooperation in September 2014, clearing the way for uranium sales. Australia’s current PM, Malcolm Turnbull, had said in April last year that he was looking forward to exporting uranium to India “as soon as possible” after holding talks with the Indian PM. Ongoing discussions with Melbourne-based BHP and Adelaide-based Heathgate Resources are aimed at formalising commercial contracts to enable uranium shipments to India.
During the first nine months of FY’18, over 1,900 metric tonnes (MT) of uranium ore concentrate had been shipped into India from Kazakhstan and Canada, or nearly 80 per cent of the record 2,419 MT that was imported the previous fiscal.
While uranium supplies holding up is a positive trend, coming alongside plans outlined by the DAE to ramp up domestic uranium production ten-fold over next 15 years (by 2031-2032), nuclear generation has faltered marginally.
During the current fiscal, upto December 2017, the capacity factor — the ratio of the net electricity generated, for the time considered, to the energy that could have been generated at continuous full-power operation during the same period — was recorded at 67 per cent. While this is data for nine months and not for the full year, the capacity factor was down to a nine-year low.
The reasons include tepid demand in the wake of a delayed industrial recovery and subdued demand on account of domestic load.
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 bring 14 reactors under IAEA safeguards in a phased manner. Thirteen of these reactors, including RAPS 2 to 6 at Rawatbhata, Rajasthan; KAPS 1 and 2 at Kakrapar, Gujarat; NAPS 1 and 2 at Narora, Uttar Pradesh; TAPS 1 and 2 at Tarapur, Maharashtra; Kudankulam 1 and 2 in Tamil Nadu; are already under IAEA safeguards, and eligible to run on imported fuel.
Officials of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), which runs the country’s nuclear power plants, said the other reactors, KGS 1 to 4 at Kaiga, Karnataka; MAPS 1 and 2 at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu; and TAPS 3 and 4 at Tarapur, Maharashtra, continue to use uranium sourced within the country.
Official sources said that the Department of Atomic Energy reckons the annual fuel needed 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.
In contrast, the need of low-enriched uranium for operating imported light water reactors (LWRs) at 85 per cent capacity factor are six tonnes for the older 160 MWe Tarapur units and 27 tonnes for 1,000 MWe units such as the twin Russian-built VVER-1000 reactor units at Kudankulam.
The total installed capacity is targeted to go up to 9,980 MWe, with seven new reactors getting progressively commissioned. These include the imported LWRs of Russian design, four indigenous PHWRs, and one indigenous prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR).
In May 2017, the Union Cabinet gave its approval for the construction of 10 units of the new indigenous 700 MWe PHWRs. The addition of 7,000 MWe is more than the combined present installed capacity of 6,780 MWe.
The new reactors are of significantly higher capacities compared to the PHWRs currently under operation — the standard PHWR being used in India is of 220 MWe though two 540 MWe reactors were installed in Tarapur in 2005 and 2006.
The ten reactors will be installed in Kaiga in Karnataka (Unit 5 and 6), Chutka in Madhya Pradesh (Unit 1 and 2), Gorakhpur in Haryana (Unit 3 and 4) and Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan (Unit 1, 2, 3 and 4). Alongside this, eight LWRs based on international cooperation — with Russia, France and the US — adding up to a capacity of 10,500 MWe, are slated to be taken up for execution.