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regular-article-logo Thursday, 18 July 2024

Indian family dynasty known as the ‘Rockefellers of Uganda’ aim to build mini nuclear plants in Britain

Madhvani Group plans to build cheaper, easier-to-assemble modular reactors In major diversification

Paran Balakrishnan Published 09.07.24, 11:32 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File picture.

The Madhvani Group, nicknamed the ‘Rockefellers of Uganda’, are teaming up with GE-Hitachi to set up what are called small modular nuclear reactors at different locations in the United Kingdom.

These highly advanced technology modular reactors can produce up to 300MW of electricity and are cheaper and also easier to install than older and larger nuclear reactors which had to be custom-made for the location where they were being installed.

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The timing of the Madhvanis’ plans to build a fleet of small modular reactors known as SMRs is opportune. The Labour Party which won a landslide election victory this week has said it wants to ensure the long-term security of the nuclear power sector.

It aims to extend the lifetime of existing plants. It also has said new nuclear power stations and the small modular reactors will help the UK achieve energy security and clean power.

For the Madhvani Group, the leap into building SMRs would be a massive diversification into an entirely new field. They are currently in sugarcane production and tea estates and also steel, hotels, insurance and construction.

The Madhvanis were famously forced to flee from Uganda in 1972 after brutal dictator Idi Amin took over the country and began a reign of terror there. Most top members of the Madhvani family fled to Britain though they were not able to take much of their wealth with them.

Mayur Madhvani, the group’s joint managing director, is married to former Bollywood superstar Mumtaz. He is thought to be spearheading the nuclear project, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

In an indication of its seriousness, the group has hired Adrian Simper, the British government’s former chief nuclear advisor, to play a key role in the project which is codenamed Project Quasar.

Initially, Simper told The Daily Telegraph, there are advanced plans to set up four reactors which would cost well over $1 billion. However, the group has much larger ambitions and could be looking at even bigger investments in Britain and other parts of the world. In Britain, the group says it wants to have reactors up and running by the turn of the decade.

It aims to install GE-Hitachi’s BWRX-300 SMRs. Simper says, “the UK is an open market in terms of technology in a way that France, for example, isn’t.” France gets more than 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear sources while 16 per cent of electricity in the UK is nuclear-generated.

These modular reactors can be built offsite and transported to the location where they will be installed. This means that a plant can be assembled in around 18 months and the cost per kilowatt hour is considerably less than in conventional nuclear plants. Among the reasons why conventional nuclear power has not become more popular in the UK and many other countries is that the plants are hugely costly.

But since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s shift away from reliance on Russian fuel, the UK has said it plans to expand nuclear generation to 25 per cent of the country’s energy mix by 2050 to ensure energy security.

Britain is also holding a competition between various companies including Madhvani GE-Hitachi and Rolls-Royce and aims to pick the best designed SMR.

Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, who took over after Idi Amin was forced to flee the country in 1979, invited many top Asian families back to reclaim their holdings in the mid-1980s. The Madhvanis, who were the largest of all the Asian businessmen, have subsequently been able to rebuild their empire and also expand it in different parts of Africa.

The Madhvani Group, which had tea estates in the Nilgiris, was an early mover in India’s spiritual pilgrimage space. Through a tie-up with Sarovar Hotels, it operates luxury properties in Bodhgaya and Tirupati as well as one in Rajkot under the Marasa brand name.

At the time of Amin’s expulsion order, there were about 80,000 Ugandan Asians and slightly over 23,000 had British passports. There was a huge political row about whether Britain should accept so many Asians at one go. But Prime Minister Edward Heath insisted Britain should honour its passports. In 1997, the Ugandan Asians, led by Madhvani Group chairman Manubhai Madhvani, held a thanksgiving service to mark the 25th anniversary of their moving to Britain, at Westminster Abbey at which Heath was the chief guest.

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