Landlocked but resource-rich Uzbekistan is seeking to deepen its strategic partnership with India, as it is planning to export uranium to power a growing number of nuclear plants in South Asia’s biggest country.
Uzbekistan’s neighbour Kazakhstan has been a supplier of uranium to India since the end of the last decade. By planning to export precious item like uranium to India now, Tashkent is signalling that it desires to expand the list of its strategic partners, a local official told ET, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Uzbekistan, the seventh biggest uranium exporter in the world, will be a key player in India’s plan to procure nuclear fuel to create a strategic uranium reserve. New Delhi is working to have a stockpile of nuclear fuel that can sustain the country’s reactors for five years and ensure that they do not stop functioning in the absence of fuel.
In the past, India’s nuclear reactors had underperformed due to shortage of fuel. India is in talks with Uzbekistan to source uranium, a senior Indian government official indicated to ET. A delegation from this Central Asian country had visited India in August to discuss the issue in detail and work out the modalities of supply.
The delegation visited India within two months of a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Astana this June. While India’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Modi’s meeting with the Chinese President dominated headlines from Astana, little focus was devoted to the Indo-Uzbek meet.
“It is in this meeting that the Uzbek President decided to elevate ties to the next level and indicated that sky is limit when it comes of Indo-Uzbek ties. In many ways, the Astana meeting was a watershed in bilateral ties and a new chapter has opened wherein Uzbekistan wants India to invest in a big way here and offering several incentives,” said a person familiar with the evolution of Indo-Uzbek ties. “The Uzbek President in many ways is similar to the Indian PM — decisive and a go-getter. Uranium is a strategic mineral and when a country decides to export it to a foreign partner, it signals confidence in each other.”
Central Asia is in the cusp of a great game with China pushing with its One Belt One Road strategy. But not to be left behind, India has given momentum to its Central Asia policy and is trying to overcome its lack of direct physical connectivity to the region through the Chabahar Port in Iran and the International North South Transportation Corridor – game-changer connectivity projects that will open up huge opportunities for India and the region. The SCO membership is helping India expand its footprints in the region. Russia, along with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, had played a key role in getting a membership for India in the bloc. In 2015, Modi had started his five-nation Central Asia trip from Uzbekistan.
India has been desiring to import uranium from Uzbekistan in the past. But constraints of connectivity prevented Tashkent to transport the material to India. However, the Astana meeting between the two leaders influenced the Uzbek government to export uranium to India, a senior Indian government official said. Uzbekistan currently supplies the yellowcake to Russia, China and Japan. It is estimated that India could import more than 2,000 tonnes of uranium from Uzbekistan once an arrangement is firmly in place.
India currently uses uranium imported from Kazakhstan and Canada to fuel its indigenously built pressurised heavy water reactors. It procures enriched uranium from Russia for two boiling water reactors at Tarapur in Maharashtra and another two at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. While Australia may soon start shipping the material to India, the country has agreements also in place to import uranium from Namibia and Mongolia.
India and Kazakhstan recently decided to also explore the possibility of cooperation in the area of components of nuclear power plants besides identifying joint projects on the application of nuclear science in the fields of medicine, industry and agriculture.
The Modi government recently approved building of 10 pressurised heavy water reactors with a capacity to generate 7,000 MW of electricity. “We will now have 21 reactors under construction and 22 reactors in operation. This will increase the capacity to over 22,000 MWe by the end of next decade. We shall continue to add more capacity in future,” Sekhar Basu, secretary at the Department of Atomic Energy and chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, said at the International Atomic Energy Agency conference at Vienna last month.
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