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No market for Australian uranium in India

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
M.V. Ramana and Cassandra Jeffery

In 2011, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) voted to overturn a ban on uranium sales to India.1 The Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement between Australia and India was then signed in 2014. The Australian Parliament subsequently passed a bill permitting its uranium mining companies to supply nuclear material to India.2 These efforts were supposedly intended to allow Australia to profit from Indian uranium purchases.

At the 2011 ALP national conference, then prime minister Julia Gillard argued that India was planning to generate 40 per cent of its electricity with nuclear energy by 2050.3 'Having access to this market is good for Australian jobs', said Gillard during the conference. The Australian Uranium Association projected that 'Australia could expect to sell some 2500 tonnes of uranium annually to India by 2030, generating export sales of AU$300 million' (US$205 million).4 But nearly a decade later, what is the reality?

Aside from a small shipment of uranium sent to India for testing in 2017, no uranium appears to have been exported to India from Australia.5 In 2018, India's Ministry of Atomic Energy stated that the country had signed contracts with firms from Kazakhstan, Canada, Russia and France to procure uranium.6 And in March 2020, India signed a contract with Uzbekistan.7 There has been no mention of Australia.

A large order for Australian uranium appears unlikely in the future as well. With a net generating capacity of only 6.2 gigawatts (GW), India does not have a large requirement for uranium in the first place.8 Further, Australian uranium can only be used for reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, which attempt to ensure that no materials are used for nuclear weapons. Such reactors amount to less than 2 GW of India's capacity.9

India's nuclear fleet will not expand dramatically either. India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has a long history of setting ambitious nuclear power generation targets and failing to meet them.10 In 1984, the DAE promised a nuclear capacity of 10 GW by 2000. The actual figure in 2000 was 2.7 GW. By then the DAE had set a new target, 20 GW by 2020.11 Again, today's current capacity (6.2 GW) is nowhere close to this target.

Seven more reactors, with a total capacity of 4.8 GW, are under construction.12 But five of these reactors have been significantly delayed. Four of them were supposed to be commissioned in 2015 and 2016. But these reactors are now expected to start operating in October 2020, September 2021, March 2022 and March 2023 respectively.

The fifth is India's flagship project, the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR). Construction started in 2004 and the reactor was supposed to start functioning in 201013 but is now 'expected to commence production of electricity in October 2022'.14

Costs have increased, too. The PFBR's estimate has jumped from Rs 34.9 billion (US$457 million) to Rs 68.4 billion (US$896 million). And the PHWRs will cost around 40–45 per cent more than initially projected.

In contrast, India's renewable energy sector is a different story.15 Wind and solar power have only recently been introduced to India's energy mix, but both technologies are expanding rapidly while becoming significantly cheaper. Between 2016 and 2019, installed solar capacity increased from 9.6 GW to 35 GW, while wind capacity increased from 28.7 GW to 37.5 GW.16 In 2019, both wind (63.3 terawatt-hours (TWh)) and solar (46.3 TWh) power contributed more to overall electricity generation in India than nuclear power (45.2 TWh).17

India's renewable energy sector is expected to continue growing18, while nuclear energy will likely remain stagnant. Recently, the Department of Economic Affairs assembled a task force to 'identify technically feasible and financially viable infrastructure projects that can be initiated in fiscals 2020–25'. The task force foresaw renewable capacity increasing from 22 per cent of the total installed electrical capacity in 2019 to 39 per cent by 2025. Conversely, nuclear capacity stays around 2 per cent of installed capacity.

Even the Indian government expects the divergence between the growing renewable energy sector and the stagnant nuclear sector to increase as the rapidly falling cost19 of solar power makes nuclear power redundant.

Australian policymakers who advocated for exporting uranium to India were betting on the wrong energy source. Perhaps there were ulterior motives, including recognising India as a major power. But good policy cannot be made on the basis of false claims.

Australian uranium companies continue to insist that India is expanding its nuclear power capacity. Energy Resources of Australia Ltd's 2017 annual report claims that 'India has 22 reactors in operation and plans to generate as much as 25 per cent of electricity from nuclear power by 2050'.20 Paladin21 and Yellow Cake22 made similar claims in 2019.

Nuclear power has never constituted more than a few per cent of India's electricity supply. Given current trends, it will never amount to much more. Nuclear reactors are expensive and time-consuming to construct, factors that explain why the share of electricity supplied by nuclear power plants globally has declined continuously, from 17.5 per cent in 1996 to 10.15 per cent in 2018.23 This global trend must be considered by Australian policymakers as they deal with lobbyists for uranium mining and the push there to build nuclear plants.24

M.V. Ramana is Professor, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security, and Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, the University of British Colombia. Cassandra Jeffery is a recent Master's of Public Policy and Global Affairs graduate of the University of British Columbia.

Reprinted from East Asia Forum,