Indo-Russian cold fusion wins

3 June 2002

India's caution over foreign power dependence has put nuclear power on a roll. The causes are easy to see: the collapse of Enron and the Dabhol Power company project; the failure of AES of the USA to make its northeastern state of Orissa plans work; plus gas price increases have turned off the back burner on a string of proposed gas-powered stations. "Privatisation" problems in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Orissa states have not helped. The homegrown National Power Grid and National Thermal Power Corporations are both turning in good revenue as they tighten the screw on non-payers.

The other beneficiary of this foreign fear has been hydro, which is making strides in reversing the massive ground it lost to thermal in the years after Independence in 1947.

Concrete progress

In August 2001, the Indians signed off the agreement for the Russians to build two 1000MWe reactors at Kudankulam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, at somewhere under $2 billion. On 3 April, 2002, the Indian prime minister's security adviser Brajesh Mishra and his Putin government counterpart V B Roushailo were reported as saying, after meeting in New Delhi, that they would not bow to any foreign pressure to halt nuclear collaboration. The first ceremonial concrete was poured at Kudankulam on 31 March and commissioning is due, and expected, in 2008. On 1 April concrete was also poured for the next 220MWe unit 3 at Kaiga.

The change in mindset is important. Today, nuclear industry workers are no longer coasting along. They say they have a real chance of cashing in on the backlash caused by the Enron-type scenarios. They hope their accident-free record will continue and they consider themselves a highly skilled and motivated workforce. There is almost no public sentiment against nuclear power and hardly any anti-nuclear protest movement.

"With abundant thorium resources, nuclear energy is an inevitable non-fossil fuel option," according to Nuclear Power Corporation chairman V K Chaturvedi. It is independent of imported oil, gas or coal and hence good for national security. Current plants are earning their living - previously poor load factors in the 50% range have now been hauled up into the mid-80% range. Chaturvedi's plans are 20,000MWe by 2020. Only time will tell, but on current evidence there is every reason to believe the nuclear sector will reach a targeted 6680MWe by end 2008.

Nuclear is still a state sector. It might get some sort of private freedom of action under the struggling draft electricity bill. However, privatisation may not be the issue. Independent power producers in India say the nuclear sector has it too easy. They admit that it is producing electricity at (for India) a phenomenally low 60 paise to Rs3.20 per unit. (There are 100 paise per rupee and Rs50 = $1.) Enron was said to have been costing up to Rs7 per unit.

The independents claim that the nuclear side can expand because it can get the money from government. Nuclear also avoids hurdles as it falls outside the remit of the national electricity regulator — but has its own nuclear power regulator. Nuclear staff say funding it not easy. Politically, they cannot borrow from the international lending institutions. Money has to come from their own nuclear power sales or from the national treasury which is as tough for them as anyone else, they say. The nuclear portfolio traditionally resides with the prime minister.

The industry and its stations are built and run by two bodies - the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL). Staff at NPCIL are, quite simply, buoyant. They like to preserve their anonymity so expressions of praise for the "will do" and dynamic attitude of NPCIL chairman V K Chaturvedi, seem to be genuine. "Earlier we used to take some 12 or 15 years to get projects commissioned and now that has come down to five years - that thrust is there - these are very solid plans and going to be met," according to one nuclear industry old-timer. Furthermore, it has been reported that units 3 & 4 of the Kaiga plant (2x220MWe), in Karnataka state, have now shortened completion schedules and lowered costs, and are expected to be completed at least one year earlier than previously estimated.

From the original Candu reactors to LWR technology has been a quantum leap for them, nuclear staff say and they are now very comfortable with the technology. Costs may be slightly more but economies of scale will come into play because of bigger stations. And the NPCIL is not only offering courses and training staff from other countries - they say they are ready to undertake foreign consultancy.

Russian constancy has also produced a $30 billion sales deal for military hardware, from tanks to missiles — no doubt there is a nuclear research element somewhere in that. Russia says it can match any foreign competition on the nuclear power plant front. The Russians have shown cold fusion can be a winner — if you stay onside, fair weather or foul.
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