Is the Application of Uranium Mining Deposits in South Asia Appropriate?

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Parvedge Haider

Uranium is considered to be a powerful requisite for producing electricity through the nuclear power stations. It is naturally radioactive[1]. There is a military use of Uranium for generating power in the nuclear submarines and also in nuclear weapons. Incorporation of high concentrations of uranium can cause severe health effects, such as cancer of the bone or liver.

Uranium is one of the more common elements in the Earth’s crust, being 40 times more common than silver and 500 times more common than gold[2].

Nuclear power plants generate power by causing a controlled fission chain reaction using uranium. This produces a huge amount of energy from a small amount of uranium. One kilogram of uranium can produce as much energy as 1500 tons of coal[3]. As little as 7 kg of uranium-235 can be used to make an atomic bomb. The first nuclear bomb used in war, ‘Little Boy’ was relied on uranium fission. About 140 pounds (64 kilograms) of highly enriched uranium-235 was used to create the ‘Little Boy’[4].

Among the countries in South Asia India and Pakistan are holding the Uranium deposits. These two countries are maintaining a significant number of nuclear power plants. Besides those two countries, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also have taken projects to generate power by using nuclear.

Top Countries Holding the Uranium Deposits

Normally the countries holding the Uranium reserves do not disclose the actual quantity; so there are variations in the statistics. According to the different sources, either Kazakhstan or Australia might be holding the highest reserve of Uranium. In the world, there are as many as 54 countries maintaining Uranium reserves. Among the South and South Asian countries India and Pakistan have got significant amount of Uranium reserves[5]. Pakistan does not have high grade uranium ore in the country. The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) estimates that at the end of 2014, Pakistan had approximately 3100 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU), and 190 kg of Weapons grade Plutonium (WgPu). In its earlier report of 2010, IPFM said that Pakistan had a stockpile of approximately 2600 kg of HEU and 100 kg of WgPu.

Photo-1: Top Countries holding the Uranium Deposits as of 2015

State of Uranium use in South Asia

India is holding the highest quantity of Uranium deposits among the South Asian countries and produces about 2 per cent of world’s Uranium. The atomic energy program of India got priority since 1948. The existing uranium mines in India are being functional at Jaduguda, Bhatin, Narwapahar, Turamdih and Tummalapalle. Recently, some uranium has been found in the copper mines of Udaipur in Rajasthan.

The ‘Jaduguda’ mine is located at Jaduguda village in the Purbi Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. It commenced operation in 1967 and was the first Uranium mine in India. The deposits at this mine were discovered in 1951. ‘Bhatin’ is a small uranium deposit situated 3 km west of Jaduguda.  ‘Narwapahar’ Mine is located 12 km west of Jaduguda. This mine was commissioned in 1995. ‘Turamdih’ mine is located about 24 km west of Jaduguda.

Photo-2: India’s Uranium Mine Locations

The existing mine deposits of India are unable to accomplish the regular and military requirements. This country imports thousands of tons of uranium from Russia, Kazakhstan, France, Australia and Canada.

The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) is currently working on war-footing to construct new tunnel shafts to source out the uranium ore. This organization has planned to automate all strenuous mining activities, avoiding direct handling of radioactive ore at every stage of operation.

India generates 75% of nuclear electricity through natural uranium fuelled Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs)[6]. There are 17 such reactors of a rather small capacity (220 MWe) in operation now.  There are also plans to add more PHWRs of larger capacity (700 MWe) since there is a complete indigenous technology base for design and construction of this type of reactors.

The Uranium ore mining and processing industry of the country began at Jaduguda in 1968. Still it has made a very impressive growth during these years with four operating mines and meeting the entire fuel requirement of the country.

Uranium Deposits in Pakistan

Pakistan began development of nuclear weapons in January 1972 under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who delegated the program to the Chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) Munir Ahmad Khan with a commitment to having the bomb ready by the end of 1976. Pakistan successfully launched the latest version of an indigenously developed nuclear-capable cruise missile. The Shaheen 3 missile is a two-stage, solid-fueled medium-range ballistic missile being developed by Pakistan. The missile is reportedly capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional payloads to a range of 2,750 km, which would make it the longest range missile in Pakistan’s strategic arsenal[7].

Despite the success in developing high quality missiles, Pakistan does not have high grade uranium ore in the country. Some inferior quality Uranium deposits are found in several locations in Pakistan. The Siwalik Hills, west of Dera Ghazi Khan, have been identified as the most promising location in Pakistan regarding the Uranium deposits. However, Pakistan has severe uranium constraints and could not have pursued both the HEU and the plutonium routes seriously.

India’s Nuclear power Generation

India operates 22 nuclear reactors in 7 power plants. Construction is planned to begin on 19 further units within next few years. There is also a plan to raise the nuclear capacity to 22.5 GWe by the year 2031[8]. Recently the Ministry of Environment and Forests & Climate Change’s (MoEFCC) has given in principle approval for survey and exploration of Uranium in 83 Sq km area of Nallamalla hills, Hydarabad. The approval had been sought by Atomic Minerals Directorate[9].

Photo-3: Exploration of Uranium at Nallamalla hills, Hydarabad

Reaction of the Locals on the Extraction Uranium Mine in India

There are significant protests by the locals against the Uranium extraction in Nallamalla hills. The issue had sparked a huge uproar in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in 2019.Multiple organizations, including political parties, several environment activists had come together in both the Telugu speaking states to form the ‘Struggle Committee against Uranium Mining’ with a slogan ‘Save Nallamalla Forest’.

Photo-4: Exploration of Uranium at Nallamalla hills, Hydarabad

The objections of the protesters are as follows:

  • Disastrous effects on the air, rivers, groundwater and the entire ecosystem
  • Krishna river will get polluted if the mining begins, which is the main source of drinking water for the residents of 2 states
  • Threat of polluting the large water body of Nagarjuna sagar reservoir
  • Tiger reserves and WLS
  • Infrastructure will be developed to support mining operations that will disturb the habitations.

According to latest government estimates, the forest has 74 tigers and 80 leopards among other wildlife.

Photo-5: Threat to Tribal people
  • There are 10,671 families comprising of 41,780 people belonging to ‘Chenchu adivasi community’, who are living in six districts across Nallamalla forest. Chenchu are one of the 75 Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG)

Risks in Handling Uranium

External exposure to uranium is not as dangerous as exposure to other radioactive elements . However, exhausted uranium has got less radioactive capability than that of natural one. This type of uranium is being used as a shield to protect people from radiation in medicine, research, and transportation. Then those becomes like a dense metal which can be used as ballasts for ships and counterweights for aircraft but the decay of uranium in rocks and soil forms radon, a radioactive gas.

The uranium ore in India are generally of low grade, which necessitates production and processing of large quantity of ore. When uranium ore is extracted from the ground, 99.28% of the mined ore is treated as waste; the uranium isotopes used in nuclear power plants mainly is uranium-235, leaving behind the major portion of the ore which constitutes of uranium-236 and uranium-238 as well as some other components. This waste is then neutralized with lime and carried through pipelines to a tailing pond.

Photo-6: Risk in Handling Uranium

If uranium tailings are stored above ground and allowed to dry out, the radioactive sand can be carried great distances by the wind, entering the food chain and bodies of water.

Under pressure from protestors, Telangana state Assembly on September 16 2019, passed a unanimous resolution, urging the central government to stop uranium mining activities in Nallamalla forest in the state.

Future Plan of India for utilizing Uranium

The country has a plan for multi-phase expansion of the nuclear power program and self-reliance of raw materials. The Uranium mining industry is fully geared up to meet the challenge of uranium fuel demand by undertaking uranium mining and processing activity progressively in line with the requirement of fuel. Several new uranium ore mining projects are in pipeline for execution.

India has imported 4458 metric tons of Uranium since 2008 to 2014[10]. Presently this country is coordinating with various countries, including Uzbekistan, to procure nuclear fuel as part of its plan to create a strategic Uranium reserve to ensure long-term security. The plan is to have a stockpile of nuclear fuel for its strategic Uranium reserve that can sustain the country’s reactors for the next five years so that they do not stop functioning because of the scarcity of uranium. In the past, the Indian power reactors faced shortage of Uranium, owing to the sanctions imposed for 1974 Pokhran nuclear tests[11].

India will renew its pact with Kazakhstan for the supply of Uranium from 2020 to 2024. Kazakhstan has so far supplied a total of 9,000 tons of Uranium, and another 1,000 tons is yet to be delivered under two five-year contract periods that end this year. So far, India used to import 80 per cent of its uranium requirement from Kazakhstan.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is all set to start the country’s another uranium ore project. There is remarkable preparation in Mining of Uranium ore from Rohili in Rajasthan.

Photo-7: Rohili Mines in Rajasthan

DAE’s Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMDER) continues to carry out extensive radiometric, geochemical and geophysical surveys across India to scour for new uranium deposits. The newest discoveries of possible uranium mine sites are in Naktu, Uttar Pradesh and potential deposits in Betul, Madhya Pradesh.

Not only in India, there are possibilities of Uranium deposits in different places of Bangladesh also. Uranium levels ranging from 850.7 ppm to 990.6 ppm in Zircon and Monazite have been found in the underground soil of Cox’s Bazar which is almost twice as high as the ore found in Sylhet and Moulvibazar. There might be presence of more radioactive material in Chattogram’s Patenga. These include Uranium, Thorium, and Radium. According to Dr. Ashraf Ali, “These surveys provide a strong indication of Uranium and Thorium in the soil of the Chattogram coast. Other coastal areas of the country also have a strong possibility for getting these minerals.”[12]

Use of radioactive materials requires a safety protocol be submitted to the UNL Radiation Safety Committee (RSC) for approval. All radiation workers must not handle radioactive material without completion of radiation safety training. The ultimate necessity of Uranium cannot be ignored in the present world context; professional and secured handling of Uranium deposits might become a blessing for the people of South Asia.

 

Parvedge Haider

Researcher, Regional and CHT issues

Email: parvedgehaider5235@gmail.com

 

[1] Facts About Uranium, https://www.livescience.com/39773-facts-about-uranium.html , accessed on February 13, 2020.
[2] What is Uranium? https://teachnuclear.ca/all-things-nuclear/canadas-nuclear-history/uranium-mining/what-is-uranium/ , accessed on February 13, 2020.
[3] Uranium and the Uranium Fuel Cycle, http://www.thoriumpowercanada.com/technology/the-fuel/thorium-vs-uranium-fuels/ , accessed on February 15, 2020.
[4] Hiroshima, Nagasaki & the First Atomic Bombs, https://www.livescience.com/45509-hiroshima-nagasaki-atomic-bomb.html , accessed on February 13, 2020.
[5] World Uranium Mining Production, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/world-uranium-mining-production.aspx , accessed on February 10, 2020.
[6] URANIUM IN INDIA: AVAILABILITY, USE AND CONTROLS, http://isssp.in/uranium-in-india-availability-use-and-controls/ , accessed on February 12, 2020.
[7] Shaheen 3, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/shaheen-3/ , accessed on February 14, 2020.
[8] Asia’s Nuclear Energy Growth, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/others/asias-nuclear-energy-growth.aspx, accessed on February 14, 2020.
[9] Since Uranium is a major mineral, it is managed by the Union Government under provisions of Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957. The policy and legislation relating to Major minerals are managed by the Ministry of Mines But Uranium being an atomic mineral is managed by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).
[10] Over 4000 MT uranium imported for nuclear reactors since 2008, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/foreign-trade/over-4000-mt-uranium-imported-for-nuclear-reactors-since-2008/articleshow/45474947.cms?from=mdr , accessed on February 15, 2020.
[11] Twenty years since Pokhran nuclear tests, India has come a long way, https://www.financialexpress.com/defence/twenty-years-since-pokhran-nuclear-tests-india-has-come-a-long-way/1164255/ , accessed on February 15, 2020.
[12] High levels of Uranium found in Cox’s Bazar, https://www.daily-bangladesh.com/english/High-levels-of-Uranium-found-in-Coxs-Bazar/35673 , accessed on February 15, 2020.
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