The big picture of power availability in India stresses the importance of urgent action. The growing per capita power consumption along with high population growth rate, urbanisation and rising middle class emphasises the critical importance of improving new power generation capacity.
The Central Electricity Authority estimates the requirement of energy generating capacity to increase from the current 43 GW to 640 GW by 2026-27. There is understandable enthusiasm about cheaper renewable sources with a small carbon footprint. However, the real cost of renewable energy sources is not likely to remain at current low levels for long.
Hence, India needs to harness all sources of power generation to meet its urgent requirements. This discussion has to consider India’s commitment given towards climate justice (UNFCC, Paris, Dec 2015) which binds the country to “reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35% by 2030 from 2005 level.” Although this commitment pushes us away from fossil fuel sources, it would be unwise to put all our eggs in the ‘renewable’ basket. This emphasizes inevitability of expansion of nuclear power.
The World Nuclear Association has estimated a 25% contribution of nuclear power (against current 2%) in India’s energy basket by the year 2050. The government is aiming to reach an intermediate target of 14.6 GWe by 2024.
India’s nuclear option
The first step on the road to achieving the nuclear power generation goal of India is to asses the uranium reserves of the country as well as the present status and constraint of mining in India. The energy-security of having a robust source of indigenous uranium production in the long term will be beneficial for the country. Currently, uranium reserves are pegged at being around 2,75,000 tonnes.
Mining industry stuck in land disputes
The efforts of opening new uranium mining facilities have a mixed track record so far. Uranium mining projects have found it increasingly difficult to gain “social consent” which slows down approvals while increasing project costs. This had pushed back nuclear power generation targets in the past.
However, the challenge of obtaining public support is not limited to uranium mines alone but spans the entire industrial landscape in India. A study by the Bharti Institute of Public Policy states a total investment of Rs.1,92,620 crore in 21 large projects are stalled due to “land-related conflicts”. Similarly, investment of Rs 41,000 crore is stalled in mining projects in Rajasthan.
Can we trust the mining industry?
Many proposed mining projects lie in tribal populated areas of Odisha, Chhattisgarh & Jharkhand which fall under Schedule V of Constitution which gives such communities protection against alienation of their land and resources.
Common apprehensions among communities expressed during public consultation process are fear of being alienated from land, the influx of people impacting demography and culture and doubts about whether economic benefits will actually come to the community and health hazards due to mining & radiation.
Additionally, acquisition of common land used for grazing and access to water bodies, transparency in the computation of compensation and its timely dispersal, conservation of cultural and religious landmarks are also causes of concern.
These are other areas of significant social concern are the flooding of downstream areas and their potential to pollute the water table. Dust and radiation hazards are additional concerns in case of uranium mines. Policies are in place to satisfactorily address these apprehensions and it is important to recognise these as issues to be included in formal ethics documents to ensure adherence to such policies.
The lack of trust for companies can be due to factors such as perceived denial of employment opportunities due to the outsourcing of specialised construction work. A lot of the times projects are delayed due to lack of trust from citizens who have been cheated by companies in the past for different projects. Improving the ethical standing of companies can help deal with such trust deficits.
Winning trust in uranium mining is a steep climb
The world was introduced to nuclear science through its ghastly effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Accidents in Three Mile Island and Chernobyl kept the horror alive. However, slowly we are coming around to hear the positive environmental impact of nuclear power exemplified by conversion of Dr Patrick Moore who was a founding member of Greenpeace to a nuclear evangelist.
However, the tide of acceptance for nuclear power quickly turned away after the March 2011, Fukushima Nuclear power and nuclear weapons were lumped together again. All aspects, including Uranium mining, lost their social acceptance.
Effective delivery of the message regarding inconsequential radiation levels in uranium mines and inherent safety features of modern nuclear reactors are important for getting social acceptance for Uranium mines and Nuclear Power Plants.
Responsible mining is the ethical way
Mining activities invariably have environmental and social footprints. Responsible mining practices keep the above to the bare minimum. The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) brought all major stakeholders in Vancouver, Canada in June 2006 to seek consensus on such practices and its verification. It mandates mining companies to disclose on all aspects likely to be of interest to communities. In the Indian context, it would include collecting and sharing of radiation levels in underground mining, in storage and transport of yellow cake as well as in waste disposable sites in a transparent way earning the confidence of all stakeholders.