Alongside India's push to develop its renewable energy generation capacity, its nuclear energy plans are growing. Uranium mining - both at home and abroad - will underpin the success of its civil nuclear ambitions.
India's nuclear energy programme, pioneered by Dr. Homi Bhabha, has come a long way from the early days of Trombay and Tarapore, with installed capacity now sitting at 6.8 GW from 22 reactors. While solar, wind and hydro power buildout has stolen the headlines in recent years, nuclear, which contributes just 2 per cent of total capacity and around 4 per cent of total generation, has received limited coverage. Now that a significant pushback against China is in play and manufacturing is shifting to India to support the Atmanirbhar Bharat - or self-reliant India - scheme, attention has been drawn back to India's energy demands which are set to rise rapidly. As a growing share of the energy mix will come from renewables, grid stability under variable weather conditions will have to be addressed. In line with this, the Modi government has embarked on a plan to triple India's nuclear capacity to over 22 GW over the next ten years. Building indigenous nuclear capacity in tandem with projected demand growth, 5.3 GW is set to be added over just the next five years. Equally important and running parallel to this, the Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) has charted a ten-year roadmap to ramp up domestic production ten-fold in order to lower the country's dependence on imports while securing end-to-end supply chains.
The three-stage programme laid out by Dr. Homi Bhabha is still etched in the minds of Indian civil nuclear decision makers. The plan involves capacity building of uranium-utilising Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PWRs), plutonium-utilising Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs) and finally, Thorium Based Reactors (TBRs). This plan was drawn up with India's vast thorium reserves in mind, the harnessing of which could eventually make the country self-sufficient. Getting to that stage has been a challenge, and India is just about entering stage II of the plan with its prototype FBR that is under construction. Out of the 7 reactors currently being assembled, 6 are PWRs, 4 of which are indigenous while 2 are Russian. The last is the locally made FBR. Looking ahead it appears that the government is keen to expand its uranium-fuelled fleet with 10 out of the 21 proposed reactors, indigenous PWRs. As it stands, 14 out of the currently 22 operational reactors are running on imported fuel. Considering uranium will remain the key input fuel for India's civil nuclear programme for the foreseeable future up to 2031, efforts are on to ramp up mining, ore processing, enrichment, and heavy water production.
The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) exploration arm, the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD), is actively scouting for new sources domestically with $1.5 billion to spend in raising production four-fold in the next five years. Jharkhand has been the main mining centre for long, but with depleting reserves mined deeper underground at higher costs, surveys are being conducted across other parts of the state. While three of the Jharkhand's seven mines have received approval for expansion, two new projects including one with a high-recovery processing plant, have been approved this year. Further afield, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are being prospected for greenfield development and out of these, the uranium field at Kanmapalli, Andhra Pradesh is particularly exciting, receiving $845 million for development.
While domestic production is set to grow, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCI) is looking for assets overseas. Last year, the Modi government built on civil nuclear agreements with key suppliers including Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Canada and Namibia to ink supply contracts. This is in addition to expanding existing agreements with Kazakhstan and Australia. It seems clear that the government believes that holding stakes with offtake agreements will ensure security of supply and provide the NPCI with flexibility to blend local and foreign material in the years ahead.
The interplay with international relations is also important to note. India's Central Asian outreach is as much a part of countering China's Belt and Road Initiative as it is about uranium trade. India's involvement in transportation and power infrastructure capacity building to service a Mongolian oil refinery financed by Indian credit lines, will help the landlocked nation find greater energy independence. Joint ventures with Kazakhstan too are reflective of the same idea, and while domestic uranium mining will grow, regional suppliers will continue to play a prominent role in both energy security and foreign policy.
On post milling processing front, the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) in Hyderabad has been seeing year on year growth in throughput and production. Expanding in Rajasthan's Kota, the NFC will be able to grow its capacity to meet the enrichment requirements. Running parallel the DAE is currently constructing the Special Material Enrichment Facility (SMEF) in Karnataka which will absorb the flood of uranium supply that will eventually go into the new reactor fleet. Similar expansion is happening for heavy water production with a new plant under construction in Baroda.
As India steps into the next decade, its nuclear ambitions are being calibrated by factors across the supply chain. Ensuring capacity building takes place in lockstep while bilateral foreign relations are kept warm, will be critical for ensuring an Aatmanirbhar nuclear future.
Surya Kanegaonkar is a commodities professional with ten years of experience in research and trading for a hedge fund, utility and miner.