Policy News

India's nuclear roadmap likely to take a detour

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2011.188 Published online 22 December 2011

India's grandiose plan, mooted five years ago, to expand nuclear power generation by importing dozens of reactors from France, Russia and the United States is going nowhere. As 2011 drew to a close not a single commercial contract was signed.

India has been pursuing a plan to increase installed nuclear power capacity from the present 4780 MW to 60,000 MW by 2035 in order to meet one fourth of all energy needs through nuclear power by 2050. The plan has been assiduously pushed forward by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after Washington lifted the embargo on nuclear trade with India in 2006 and the Nuclear Suppliers Group's waiver in 2008 allowing its members to trade with India even though it has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

Anti-nuclear protests in Jaitapur, Maharashtra.

But now with anti-nuclear protests at home — prompted by the Fukushima disaster in March this year — and nuclear liability issues and techno-commercial matters still remaining unsettled, there are doubts if and when foreign companies will be able to set up their reactors in India.

There has, however, been one good news. Earlier this month (December 2011), the ruling party of Australia, that has the world's largest uranium reserves with 23% of the total, has decided to sell uranium to India overturning its decades-old policy that bans export of the nuclear fuel to countries that have not signed the NPT.

This year-end news is likely to force Indian nuclear policy planners make a slight deviation in their roadmap — by shifting the emphasis from import of light water reactors (LWR), that use enriched uranium fuel, to home-grown pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) that burn naturally occurring uranium. Until recently India's uranium resources were believed to be a modest 73,000 tonnes but the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in May 2011 claimed a new find of 139,800 tonnes in Tummalapalle in Andhra Pradesh.

"This is a very good thing to have happened," Malur Ramaswamy Srinivasan, former chairman and currently member of the Atomic Energy Commission told Nature India referring to the Australian move to lift the ban. "It has really widened our options." Srinivasan said that while waiting for reactors from France, Russia and the United States, "we can buy Australian uranium and build PHWRs of indigenous design."

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) is already planning to build 12 PHWRs of 700MW capacity each, Srinivasan said. And with imports of uranium from not only Australia but also Russia, some African countries and Kazakhstan — which contains the world's second-largest uranium reserves — "we can increase the number of PHWRs. That is a possibility."

"We should try to buy as much uranium as possible from Australia to get the Bhabha plan moving," says Adinarayanan Goplaakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The Bhabha scheme involves building PHWRs, which would produce enough plutonium as a by-product to fuel fast-breeder reactors that would in turn convert thorium, abundantly available in India, into fissile uranium-233. In the third and final phase, India hopes to run its reactors using the 233U–Th cycle without any need for new uranium.

Gopalakrishnan alleges that the nuclear policy planners were only thinking about how to import reactors rather than ways to maximise uranium inventories to quickly replicate the PHWRs and thereby accelerate the path for thorium utilization. Paramahamsa Tewari, a former director of power projects at the NPCIL agrees. "They are so much wedded to the idea of importing reactors that I doubt if availability of uranium from Australia and elsewhere will make any difference(to their thinking)."

Srinivasan however disagrees. "We will certainly take advantage of the market situation and buy as much uranium as possible," he said. "But reactors using enriched uranium have certain advantages and our policy right now is to buy uranium for our PHWRs and at the same time import large reactors of 1000 MW to 1600 MW capacity. We are certainly engaging discussions for more reactors with Russia, France and the US and both activities (import of reactors and purchase of uranium) run parallel."

While the Australian move to export uranium to India has breathed fresh life into Bhabha's three phase programme it is not known when India will be able to receive the shipments. "No formal communication has been received from Australia, so far," V. Narayanasamy, minister of state in the Prime Minister's office told the Parliament last week. "Therefore, it is not possible, as yet, to provide the time by which uranium for our reactors will be available from Australia."

According to Australian news reports, the Australian Cabinet must first officially authorize uranium exports to India and then a safeguards agreement between the two nations should be signed before shipments can begin. The bilateral nuclear trade talks are expected to take place in mid-2012.

The Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu.

Uranium from Australia will take time, but "we have the immediate problem to resolve the Kudankulam issue," says Srinivasan. Villagers in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, have intensified their 4-months long protest against the two 1000 MW Russian built power reactors almost ready to generate power. Work at Jaitapur in Maharashtra (the proposed site for six 1600 MW French reactors) was halted in April. And, in August, West Bengal refused permission for the proposed "nuclear park" at the coastal city of Haripur slated to host six Russian reactors while the US companies — stymied by the Indian liability law that holds suppliers culpable in the event of a nuclear accident — are adopting a wait and watch attitude.

While hoping that the anti-nuclear Fukushima effect will taper off and the nuclear expansion plan would go as planned, the Indian government is keeping options open to meet future energy needs. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) unveiled a plan (in December 2011) to add about 50,000 MW new capacity leading to a total renewable power generation capacity of about 73,000 MW by 2022 — significantly more than what was promised by the DAE.

According to the plan announced in the Parliament, this capacity will comprise of 20,000 MW from solar power under the National Solar Mission and the remaining 30,000 MW from other renewable energy sources mainly wind, small hydro and biomass power. The projection is not far-fetched. A report on India's solar potential recently published by the Australian government says "there is more than enough suitable land with high direct beam solar to meet the entire nation's electricity needs in principle."