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Fuel shortage cripples nuclear power stations

June 06, 2008 21:36 IST

The commissioning of two new atomic power stations, slated for this month, has been postponed indefinitely because of sustained nuclear fuel shortage, which is also affecting the existing atomic power projects in India.
There is no possibility of the fifth unit (220 MW) of the Rajasthan Atomic Power Project at Rawatbhatta and the fourth reactor of Kaiga Atomic Power Project in Karnataka going critical in the near future.
The government reportedly put them on hold as it is facing an acute shortage of uranium and does not want to hamper the existing projects that are already running below capacity because of the depleting uranium stocks.
Minister of State for Power Jairam Ramesh has confirmed that the projects have been stalled due to the uranium fuel crisis.

"First, it was the fifth unit of RAPP and now it is the 220 MW Kaiga U4. The commissioning of both these projects have been delayed by several months," he said.
India's two nuclear tests, one during Indira Gandhi's prime ministership and another during the National Democratic Alliance's rule, have proved costly in the long run. The Indian government has not been able to buy uranium fuel for existing projects, due to the embargo slapped by the nuclear nations.

The government was counting on the Indo-United States civilian nuclear agreement to pave the way for the removal of the embargo, but that prospect has also dimmed because of the delay in formalising the deal.
Ramesh disclosed that the second unit of 220 MW of RAPP U5, due for commissioning in March next year, has been also delayed. "We had planned the commissioning of 660 MW of nuclear capacity this year (2 x220 MW of RAPP and 220 MW of Kaiga). This capacity will not happen this year," he said.
He pointed out that the existing atomic power plants were running below capacity because of the uranium shortage. The electricity production at the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation plants fell to about 16,960 million units in 2007-08 from 18,000 MU a year earlier. NPC has already highlighted this problem at various forums.
The statement by Ramesh, confirming that the two new projects have missed the commissioning deadline, assumes significance, as it comes a week ahead of the United Progressive Allaince-Left meeting on June 10 to resolve the standoff on nuclear deal.
Unless India signs the 123 agreement with the US, the Nuclear Suppliers Group will not lift the embargo to allow inflow of uranium in India. The coming week will show whether the government pushes ahead with the deal for energy security or delays it as a political compulsion to keep the Left front happy.
Ramesh pointed out that the atomic power station at Kakrapar in Gujarat is operating at half its capacity because of depletion of uranium and the fuel is sufficient to run it only for another five or six years. All 220 MW nuclear power plants are currently running at 150 to 160 MW to optimally use the fuel.
Though India has several uranium mines -- located in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya -- purifying the uranium to the high-grade quality needed for the nuclear power reactors may take many years. The only way out to avert the current nuclear fuel crisis is imports, feels Ramesh.

R Prema in New Delhi