Ending nuclear dependency

India now has 22 nuclear power units. The first pair, located in Tarapur, Maharashtra, uses enriched uranium and incorporates U.S. nuclear technology. These two reactors have operated safely and reliably for the past 47 years and supply the lowest cost non-hydro power. The second pair, located in Rajasthan, uses natural uranium and is based on Canadian technology.

The first unit of this pair has been out of service for some years due to deficiencies in some key equipment; the second unit has been operating satisfactorily. Commencing from 1983 and over a span of two and a half decades, India built 16 nuclear power units using its own technology, materials and equipment. These reactors use natural uranium as fuel. Fourteen of them have a size of 220 MW and two are of 540 MW.

Nuclear push in the 2000s

During the period 2000-2010, India designed a nuclear power unit of 700 MW capacity, using natural uranium. Construction work on two such units in Kakrapar (in Gujarat) and two in Rajasthan was taken up. These four units will go into operation in the next three years. Work on two similar units has been taken up at a site in Haryana.

All equipment and materials for these larger units will come from Indian suppliers. In recent years, two 1000 MW VVER power units have come up in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, using Russian technology. They use enriched uranium supplied by Russia. In 2016, work on two more such units was commenced. When all these units go into operation, India will have 30 reactors with a capacity of 13,000 MW. By then some of the earlier units will be reaching their retirement age.

In the period 2005-2008, the Indian nuclear establishment was focussed on concluding the civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. India then agreed to build about 10,000 MW of nuclear capacity using U.S. technology. A similar assurance was given to France. Russia and India agreed to install additional units at Kudankulam. The expectation in 2008 was that a rapid increase in Indian nuclear capacity would take place. During 2010-2011, India passed the civil nuclear liability legislation which made a supplier liable for claims under certain circumstances. The U.S. nuclear industry was not prepared to consider any cooperation with India under this condition. In 2016, India came up with the mechanism of an Indian insurance pool that could extend protection to the supplier.

The Fukushima accident of 2011 jolted the nuclear industry globally and the first priority was assessment of safety of nuclear plants in operation all over the world under what was termed as ‘Beyond Design Basis’ natural events. An unconnected development in the U.S. impacted a nuclear revival there: the availability of shale gas at low prices, in the range of $2.50 to $3 per million BTU. In consequence, General Electric de-emphasised the prospects of nuclear energy. Westinghouse designed a 1400 MW enriched uranium reactor (AP1000) complying with the current safety requirements. It managed to get Chinese utilities to build four such units at two sites and they are in an advanced stage of execution.

Westinghouse also secured orders to build four AP1000 reactors in the southern U.S., at two utilities. Unfortunately, these projects suffered great delays and huge cost overruns. Toshiba of Japan, a major owner of Westinghouse, incurred $7-8 billion in losses due to the nuclear business in the U.S. and is considering selling its successful chip business to accommodate this loss. Westinghouse has filed for bankruptcy and the future of the four nuclear power units under construction in the U.S. is highly uncertain.

Project delays aplenty

Westinghouse representatives discussing their proposal with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) for setting up six AP1000 reactors in Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh, have said that the new ownership would get sorted out, perhaps within a year or so, and they would continue to be seriously interested in the India project. The U.S. government might facilitate a new owner acceptable to it, and the nuclear business may resume in some modified manner. From an Indian perspective, delays in this project are inevitable and the outcome would be uncertain.

India has been in discussions with Areva of France on building six EPR reactors of 1600 MW at Jaitapur, Maharashtra. The first such reactor in Finland has been greatly delayed and may go into operation in 2018. There is a pending arbitration case between Finland and France regarding who is to bear the resulting cost increases. A second EPR is under construction in Flammanville, France and that has also suffered delays due to questions regarding the quality of important forgings. Two EPRs in China were making good progress earlier but they also have to address the question of quality of some forgings made in France. Quite independently of these problems, Areva suffered heavy losses post-Fukushima when the uranium market bottomed. Japan, a big buyer of uranium, went out of the market as most of their reactors were shut down in 2011. Only a few have been allowed to restart. The French government has restructured the nuclear business and asked the Electricite de France to take over the nuclear power plant business and let only the fuel and associated activities to be with Areva.

Make in India

Anticipating some of these difficulties, the nuclear community in India has been looking at other options to expand the nuclear capacity. The fleet of pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR), of our own design and construction, have performed well. During the last five years, the cumulative capacity factor has been 78%. The reactors have operated continuously for periods exceeding 300 days quite regularly and one of our reactors was on line for 765 days, the second-longest run in the world. The cost of power has been less than from coal in the same region. Given the context, the Union Cabinet’s nod on Wednesday for 10 700 MW PHWRs is timely. Indian industry is well placed to supply all the components and materials required for these reactors. Russia is willing to supply two more 1000 MW VVER units for Kudankulam and continue the cooperation to build six 1200 MW VVERs at a second site, to be identified by India.

Our reactor designers at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and NPCIL have completed the design of a 900 MW reactor using enriched uranium as fuel, designated as the Indian Pressurised Water Reactor (IPWR). Our industry is keen to mobilise and build up the capacity to make components for this design. Enriched uranium fuel can be sourced from international suppliers, as such reactors can be placed under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

By about 2025 or so, India may itself supply enriched uranium from its own enrichment facilities. The government’s push for 10 IPWRs will secure India a position of nuclear power plant supplier not only for application in India, but also as a potential exporter. While our earlier plans on expanding nuclear power have not materialised, the alternative plan suggested now, which envisages building 28 units with a total capacity of about 25,000 MW in 15 years from now, can still ensure that nuclear power remains an important part of our strategy to minimise carbon emissions in the long run.

M.R. Srinivasan is former Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission

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