Uzbekistan a key partner in India’s efforts to build strategic uranium reserve


Endowed with one of the richest uranium reserves in the world, Uzbekistan, the most populous country in Central Asia, is a key partner for India in the latter’s efforts to develop a strategic reserve of nuclear fuel for ensuring long-term energy security. While Uzbekistan is preparing to build its first nuclear power plant (NPP), which will become the first NPP in the region after a long hiatus, India has recently achieved criticality with its first indigeneously built 700 MW Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) at Kakrapar in Gujarat state.

Uzbekistan, which has the seventh largest uranium reserves in the world, has had economic and political relations with India for centuries and continues to be a country of major strategic importance for the South Asian nation. Since early in the preceding millenium, Fergana, Samarkand, Bukhara in Uzbekistan emerged as major towns on the trade routes linking India with Europe and China. Indian merchants based in Samarkand and Bukhara were an integral part of local economy, while interactions over thousands of years also contributed to close cultural linkages.

In 2019, India and Uzbekistan signed a deal for long-term supply of uranium to power Indian atomic reactors. The agreement on the long-term supply of uranium ore concentrate for India’s energy needs was signed between the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Navoi Mining and Metallurgical Combine of Uzbekistan. The deal was signed during Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s second visit to India in January last year since he assumed office in 2016.

The uranium supply agreement with Uzbekistan was concluded after long drawn negotiations over many years, while it became the second Central Asian country to supply nuclear fuel to India after Kazakhstan. Apart from domestic production, the other countries that India imports uranium from are Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia. These are primarily used to fuel its indigenously built PHWRs.

India procures enriched uranium from Russia for its two boiling water reactors at Tarapur in Maharashtra. Russia also supplies uranium to fuel the two grid-connected reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, the equipment for which have been supplied by the Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, who are also the technical consultants for the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) consisting of multiple units.

Apart from these countries, India has also signed agreements to import uranium from Namibia and Mongolia. In fact, the creation of a strategic uranium reserve to ensure that its reactors do not run short of fuel has been a longstanding concern for India arising out of sanctions imposed by Western countries after India conducted its first underground nuclear tests in 1974. India’s reactors have underperformed in the past owing to a shortage of uranium.

In this regard, the signing of the historic US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008 paved the way for India’s return to global nuclear trade. That year became an important landmark in India’s clean energy programme when the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) of 48 countries also adopted a policy of civilian nuclear cooperation with the South Asian nation. Thereafter, India has entered into civil nuclear agreements with 14 countries, including the US, Russia, France and Japan for exchange of expertise and technology. India, however, still continues to be denied membership of the NSG, despite the willingness of most member states.

Following the 2015 climate change conference in Paris (CoP 21), among India’s stated goals to reduce the impact of global warming include achieving a 40 percent electricity generation capacity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 and 63,000 MW of installed nuclear capacity by 2032.

India currently has 22 reactors with a capacity of 6,780 MW in operation in the country. In addition, 9 reactors, with a total capacity of 6,700 MW are presently under construction, according to the state-run operator, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL). These 22 operating reactors contribute to around 1.8 percent of India’s total energy mix.

On India’s expansion plans, NPCIL has said that six reactors, including Kakrapar-4, are at advanced stages of construction and would be completed by 2024, providing additional capacity of 4,800 MW. Four more reactors are ready to start construction very soon, which will provide 3,400 MW. Besides, the government has approved 10 more PHWRs. The NPCIL plans to set up sixteen 700 MW PHWRs in the country, for which the government has accorded administrative and financial sanction.

Units 1 and 2 (1,000 MW each) of the KNPP being built with Russian collaboration are already connected to the grid, while 40 percent construction has been completed for units 3 and 4 of the same capacity. Two additional 1,000 MW units at the KNPP have been agreed upon, the construction work for which is due start soon. Besides, talks are at a final stage with the French state-run firm EDF for constructing two Generation-3 European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) reactors at Jaitapur in Maharashtra state, according to NPCIL.