Nuclear energy is, for now, playing a minuscule role in India’s energy story, contributing to about 2% of the country’s electricity needs.
But nuclear power generation in India is a story that is set to grow.
India is looking at adding another 5.4 GW to the nuclear power plants in the next decade, adding to the current total output of 6.7 GW.
But new nuclear plants have been opposed by the local populace in almost every part of the country where they have been proposed to be set up.
Now, an in-principle approval given by the Indian government to initiate exploratory mining for more uranium across the two southern provinces of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana has locals up in arms.
The location also includes a nature reserve not only rich in flora and fauna, but also with a large tiger population. The technical go-ahead was given a few months back for Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) to begin exploration for uranium, but an earlier protest led to a temporary pause in the process.
Andhra Pradesh is the largest producer of uranium in India. Tummalapalle village, located in the Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh, is considered to have one of the largest uranium reserves in the world.
Next to the mine there is a processing plant that converts the uranium ore into sodium diuranate for use in nuclear power plants. Over the years, local farmers and environmentalists have alleged that it had led to the contamination of soil and groundwater, in addition to the destruction of water bodies.
A rethink by the government to go ahead with the fresh exploration has once again raised the hackles of environmentalists in India, who argue that whatever the procedure used to extract uranium, the wholesale mining for uranium would produce large amounts of radioactive waste that would pollute a major river nearby (as well as the surrounding areas).
They claim even if the waste is treated before disposal, uranium mining can still lead to the contamination of water and soil, eventually harming the flora and fauna of the region.
Officials of the Atomic Minerals Directorate tried to take samples after drilling a bore well for exploration and research, but were prevented by villagers, according to the News Minute.
The villagers have also been joined by opposition parties in the protests.
India’s nuclear plants are controlled by Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), a state-owned corporation. India currently has seven nuclear power plants, but there are plans to add more.
But toward that goal, the government faces an uphill task.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a conference by the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York that India was unable to drastically reduce its dependence on coal for electricity generation. India, incidentally, has the third-highest coal reserves in the world.
The prime minister partially blamed the dependence on coal on being kept out of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
It is only because India is not part of this group that India does not have an assured supply of nuclear fuel, Modi told the audience.
Compared to other countries, India’s coal generation is expected to grow into the late 2030s, according to BloombergNEF.
Of late, India has been scouting around for nuclear fuel suppliers. India and Uzbekistan recently signed a deal for long-term supply of uranium to power its domestic atomic reactors. Kazakhstan and Russia are already supplying the same to India, while there are plans to also purchase the fuel from Australia.
First found in 2000, the uranium reserves in the province of Andhra Pradesh were officially commissioned in 2012 and equipped to cater to 25% of the requirement of uranium in India’s nuclear power plants.
The total reserves of uranium oxide in the divided Andhra Pradesh reached about 122,000 tons in 2017.