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Hunt for the yellow cake

Jaduguda. It is from the depths of this arid tribal belt that India's nuclear programme had its beginning. And still gets sustenance. Located in the mineral-rich Singhbum district of east Bihar, Jaduguda is the principal -- and almost only -- source of Uranium in India, giving it complete independence in nuclear fuel fabrication for its 10 existing nuclear reactors.
When exploration began in the early '50s, seven states -- the others being Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Meghalaya and Rajasthan -- were identified as potential places for mining.

But the extraction of ore could commence only in the Singhbum Thrust Belt (STB) with the first underground mine coming up in Jaduguda in 1967.

Subsequently, operations began in the adjoining Bhatin and Narwapahar areas, where two smaller mines are located at present. Natural Uranium, such as the one mined in Jaduguda, consists of a mixture of three isotopes and one of them (U-235) is the only known fissionable element.

Byinteraction with neutrons, the nucleus of U-235 is split in two parts. This splitting is termed fission since it releases energy and more neutrons, starting a nuclear chain reaction. The large amounts of heat released by this reaction are used in nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

Last year, nuclear power supplied some 2.3 per cent of the country's electricity and this was expected to go up to 10 per cent by 2005. In comparison, nuclear power contributes only 0.65 per cent of the electricity generated in Pakistan and the country hardly has any Uranium deposits of its own.

The Jaduguda-based Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), which comes under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy (DOE), has not been able to augment its Uranium supplies despite the fact that ``sizable'' deposits have been located at least in Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh. This is also despite the fact that four nuclear reactors are currently under construction and a dozen more proposed.

Followingthe Pokharan II blasts, security near the Jaduguda mines has been stepped up and few visitors are allowed in. UCIL officials categorise their figures of Uranium production as `classified' information and say they can reveal only their production capacity. Says J.L. Bhasin, the company's chairman and managing director: ``All I can tell you is that after taking into account the additional demands from the four new reactors, we have enough Uranium till the year 2004. After that India will have to mine additional deposits.''

According to UCIL figures, the Jaduguda underground has a daily capacity to produce 1,000 tonnes of Uranium ore and this will also be the capacity for which the Narwapahar mine, 12 km from Jaduguda, is being designed. The Bhatin mine, 4 km from Jaduguda has a capacity of 250 tonnes.

Also located next to the Jaduguda mine is the sprawling Uranium mill, which processes ore mined from the entire Singhbum belt and also has a capacity of 1,000 tonnes per day. The mill processes the Uranium orefrom the entire STB and produces Magnesium Diuranate or yellow cake which is transported in drums for purification to Hyderabad.

However, UCIL officials say, what was important was not their production capacities but the conditions under which they were giving India self-sufficiency in supplies of the ``strategic'' ore. Reason: the ore being mined in Jaduguda had one of the lowest grades in the world (.06 per cent) and now the Uranium deposits had gone too deep. While miners at Jaduguda worked for decades at a maximum depth of 555 meters, a new shaft for work up to 905 meters had been dug in 1997.

Bhasin admits the low-grade of the Jaduguda ore as well as the depths at which the ore created problems for them. ``There is hardly any other country in the world doing underground mining of Uranium which is of such a low grade. The low-grade of the deposits definitely makes our operation both expensive and difficult,'' he says.

But the country's dependence on Jaduguda for putting it among the 24Uranium-producing countries is unlikely to end soon.

Geologists working in Jaduguda say that the advantage of commencing mining operations in the two states outside the STB, was that unlike Jaduguda, they would be open-cut mines, and operations there would be far cheaper and less hazardous in comparison. Of course, some officials privately admit, the UCIL may not be able to get a ``captive'' workforce of miners as they have been able to get among the 4,000 miners -- a majority of whom belongs to the Santhal, Munda and Ho tribes.

Meghalaya's Uranium deposits are located at Domiasiat in the West Khasi hill district and are being described by UCIL officials as a ``good, double-grade'' variety. It is understood that though officials from UCIL and the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) had visited Domiasiat several times and that Meghalaya Government officials had, in turn, visited Jaduguda, no decision has been taken on when the mining could start.

Evidently, it was the ``resistance'' of the MeghalayaGovernment and the uncertain law and order situation prevailing in the North-East which was holding up the Domiasiat operations.

The other ``mineable'' deposit located by the UCIL was at Lambapur in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh. This is being described as a ``small'' deposit by geologists who have surveyed the area. But with the nuclear race on in the subcontinent, they say, every ounce of the precious yellow cake is valuable.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.