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Nuclear power: Uranium shipments hold up, but blip in generation

Over 1,900 metric tonnes (MT) of uranium ore concentrate has been shipped into India from Kazakhstan and Canada during the first nine months of the current fiscal, which is nearly 80 per cent of the record 2,419 MT that was imported in the previous fiscal. While the supplies holding up is positive trend, coming alongside plans outlined by the Department of Atomic Energy 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 is down to a nine-year low. This is despite power generation at units 1 and 2 of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) — the country’s biggest nuclear plant — hitting the maximum level of 2000 MW late last year, reaching full capacity at 3.30 AM on December 5. The reasons include tepid demand in the wake of a delayed industrial recovery and subdued demand on account of domestic load.

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 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguards and use imported uranium. A steady supply of uranium is good news for the country’s nuclear power sector, something that is expected to push up the performance of Indian nuclear power plants, as well as of the several fuel cycle facilities.

According to the domestic uranium mining plans being undertaken by the DAE, projects have been planned in three phases over the next decade and half, subject to obtaining all statutory clearances and external constraints. On completion of the projects in first phase, it is expected to produce 3.5 times of existing uranium production by the twelfth year. On completion of the projects in second phase, uranium production is expected to achieve seven times of existing production. With the completion of phase three projects uranium production of the country is expected to record tenfold increase by 2031-32.

Last year, over 2,400 MT of nuclear fuel was shipped into India from three countries — the Russian Federation, Canada and the Republic of Kazakhstan. The uranium shipments in 2016-17 was a record for a single year and accounted for, in quantitative terms, nearly 53 per cent of total nuclear fuel imported into India since the country’s access to the global nuclear fuel market opened up in 2008. Alongside these three countries, uranium shipments have also been received from France.

Steady imports in uranium, besides leading to augmentation of fuel supplies to the 14 reactors that qualify for imported fuel, would also lead to a commensurate improvement in domestic fuel supplies for the other eight. 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. Fourteen 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 need 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 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 — totaling to a capacity of 10,500 MWe, are slated to be taken up for execution.

Source: The Indian Express