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Kudankulam nuclear plant: not only a construction site but also a university

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Unique knowledge: Russian high-level professionals are the professors at Kudankulam.
Unique knowledge: Russian high-level professionals are the professors at Kudankulam.

Tatyana Sinitsyna

India has a long-term nuclear energy programme and is learning to do everything independently. Inclination for knowledge is part and parcel of Indian mentality.

No energy is more expensive than not having energy: Dr. Homi Bhabha.

India is building its biggest energy temple in Tamil Nadu — the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). It will not last for centuries like Shiva or Vishnu temples because physicists who are now in the cradle are bound to invent something better than nuclear fission. But in our century, the NPP is bound to have an active life — there is no alternative to nuclear energy for the time being.

Russia is helping India build the NPP. To be more precise, Indian workers are building it under a Russian project. Hence, the designer (supervision) is also Russian. Both sides are closely watching the project and looking forward to its successful completion. There are other observers as well — any nuclear project attracts attention and even jealousy.

Important news came from Kudankulam recently — on June 2, it received the first three batches of Russian nuclear fuel for Reactor 1. The nuclear fuel rod is packed with heat-emitting fuel elements — “tvels”, in nuclear jargon. The level of uranium enrichment is low — no more than 4.1 per cent, which conforms to international standards. There are enough of them for the reactor’s initial loading and reloading in a year after its commissioning (such are the rules).

Earlier, on May 29, a ship with regular 41st consignment of equipment, weighing 2,362 tonnes, left St. Petersburg for Tuticorin. It consists of fittings, pipes, pumping equipment, control panels, and metal cable ware. This equipment is being sent in line with the decision of the second meeting of the Joint Coordinating Committee on Kudankulam, which took place on April 25-26. In the estimate of Atomstroyexport, the Russian company in charge of NPP construction abroad, the aggregate volume of Russia-sent equipment is 320,546 cubic metres, and the weight is 78,690 tonnes (or 83 per cent of the total).

The project consists of the two nuclear reactors under construction and four 1000-MW blocs, which will be built later on. Once the project is completed, the Kudankulam NPP will be a source of energy on a truly global scale. But when will this happen? The first scoop of concrete was poured for Reactor 1’s foundation on March 31, 2002. Now the Indian builders are doing all they can to complete the project by the deadline — Reactor 1 at the end of this year, and Reactor 2 in a year. But it is clear that the schedule will change for several reasons.

It was impossible to calculate everything beforehand, especially since Kudankulam is not a typical construction site. It has a second important mission as a university where Indian specialists are getting unique knowledge, mastering the construction of light-water reactors. Russian high-level professionals are the professors at this university — they represent a country with vast experience in all levels and stages of the nuclear era.

India’s distinction

Needless to say, nuclear energy is not new for India. It has long occupied a major niche in this sphere — it has 17 old heavy-water reactors, and is taking an active interest in new global nuclear achievements. India is one of the few countries to have developed a full nuclear cycle — from the production of uranium to nuclear waste disposal. At the same time, India did not have any experience in building and running safer and more efficient light-water reactors. Now it is gaining this experience with Russia’s help. India has a long-term nuclear energy programme, which is aimed at reducing the energy shortage and increasing the number of NPPs, and is learning to do everything independently.

New technological road

The project’s operators realise that this is slowing down the rate of construction. Indian specialists are following a new technological road, and each step, be it pouring concrete or assembling nodule, brings new knowledge that must be mastered. The historic inclination for knowledge is part and parcel of Indian mentality.

Mikhail Klonitsky, deputy chief engineer at the Moscow-based Atomenergoproject company which took part in designing the Kudankulam NPP, expressed respect for the persistence of Indian colleagues in building energy blocs with Russian WWER-1000 reactors. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) could have simply bought blocs from Russia as a turn-key project, he added.

Most of Russia’s foreign partners choose this pragmatic option. This is how two blocs of the Chinese Tianwan NPP were built, and the same terms underlie the construction of the Belene NPP in Bulgaria. Initially, the Indians were also tempted to go for this easy option, but then firmly decided to learn how to build light-water reactors on their own. Russia agreed to share its knowledge with its long-time friend and partner, and is providing valuable lessons. As they say: “If you give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you’ll feed him for a lifetime.”

In order to get this priceless experience, Indians are doing all the building and assembly work on their own. All in all, there are more than 1,000 people at the site. The group of Russian specialists from Atomstroyexport is rather small —only about 100 engineers. To implement the intergovernmental agreement on the NPP construction, they are supervising the construction of buildings and infrastructure, and equipment supplies. Their other responsibilities include technical support during the reactors’ assembly and commissioning, as well as training operators and service personnel.

Total support from Russia

State Duma (Lower Chamber of the Russian Parliament) Deputy Mikhail Grishankov said, “successful implementation of the contract with India will promote the prestige of the Russian nuclear industry abroad. We are giving all-round support to our Indian colleagues in developing their nuclear power industry with an open heart.”

Russia is certainly interested in the project’s effective completion. This will strengthen its image as a reliable partner who respects agreements and produces top quality work. Today, Russia has already supplied India with 83 per cent of equipment required for the NPP, 98 per cent of the project’s documentation, and delivered the first consignment of nuclear fuel.

Quality and security override everything else. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has recognised the WWER-1000 reactor project as one of the best in the world both in terms of technology and safety. The possibility of an accident is negligibly small — 1:1,000,000.

Quality is guaranteed by the project’s author — the Russian side, and regularly monitored by the Indian side. All major technological processes are subject to check. Here is a recent example: a quality check was done on the recently supplied nuclear fuel.

Konstantin Grabelnikov, chief operator at the Novosibirsk Plant of Chemical Concentrates, reported that the Indian inspectors thoroughly checked the external appearance of the fuel assemblies, conducted ultrasound, radiographic, and metallographic measurements, and verified the level of uranium enrichment, to name a few aspects. The documents note that Russia is strictly abiding by all terms of the contract.

When some people hear the words “nuclear energy”, they become dazed. This is because of radio-phobia, which was caused by the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Chernobyl disaster 40 years later. But civilisation has no other choice than to get rid of these fears — it never imagined that it would become so addicted to energy.

Nuclear power giants like Kudankulam are called upon to deal with energy shortages. Last February, Russia and India initialled the intergovernmental agreement on the construction of four blocs at Kudankulam, and other sites. This is a good prospect for Russia and India, but it may be subjected to a difficult trial by rivalry in the relevant market, and political intrigues.

For the time being, India’s nuclear reactors are covered only by the IAEA safeguards. They will look much more convincing if they are backed by political guarantees, notably, India’s ratification of the Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. — RIA Novosti


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