Coming of age in 2014

24 September 2014

With the start-up of the first large PWR, and first criticality expected at an indigenously-designed fast reactor, 2014 is set to be a milestone year for nuclear power in India. But what does the future hold for the country’s ambitious three-stage programme? By Saurav Jha

With the start-up of the first large PWR, and first criticality expected at an indigenously-designed fast reactor, 2014 is set to be a milestone year for nuclear power in India. But what does the future hold for the country's ambitious three-stage programme? By Saurav Jha

On 22 October 2013, Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant-I (KKNP-I) was synchronized with India's southern grid. The commissioning of the 1000 MWe VVER-1000 built in collaboration with Russia's Atomstroyexport represented a 20% jump in India's installed nuclear generation capacity. Though India already had 20 reactors in operation at the time with more than 350 reactor-years of cumulative experience, KKNP-I was the first-ever large pressurized water reactor (PWR) to be built on Indian soil. Indeed KKNP-I marks the emergence of a new phase in which India has left behind its nuclear isolation and can incorporate large light water reactors (LWRs) with foreign collaboration and fuel guarantees.

Following the grant of a waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) in 2008, India has sewn up a number of bilateral civil nuclear agreements with other nations including but not limited to the United States, Russia, France, Canada and Kazakhstan paving the way for Indian participation in the global nuclear trade for both reactors as well as fuel.

As part of a strategy to hasten the growth of India's nuclear generation capacity which contributes only 2-3 percent of overall generation at the moment, about 40,000 MWe of LWR capacity is sought to be imported as an 'additionality' to India's existing fleet of small and medium pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR). However the import route hasn't exactly turned out to be easy as the experience with Kudankulam itself has shown.

Though construction actually began in 1998 (grandfathered at the time by a 1988 Indo-Soviet treaty which predates NSG), KKNP-I was fraught with delays, initially caused by problems with the Russian supply chain and then on account of anti-nuclear protests in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

It is in this context that India's Nuclear Energy Program: Future Plans, Prospects and Concerns edited by R. Rajaraman, has been published. The book has grown out of a workshop on nuclear safety organized by the Indian National Sciences Association in February 2012, and is essentially a collection of seminar manuscripts. The thrust of the book is to outline the aims behind the pursuit of nuclear energy in India as seen through the eyes of veteran insiders interspersed with the concerns of some long-time third-party observers.

Energy need

Various chapters of the book allude to India's very real need for energy access to attain a higher standard of living for its growing population and to support industrial development. As R. Chidambaram ("The Nuclear Energy Option and Energy Safety") points out, there is a monotonic relation between per capita electricity consumption (PCEC) and per capita gross domestic product. He also believes that strong correlation exists between human development and access to electricity.

It is further underlined that total electrical energy generation in India, which currently stands at more than 900 TWh per year, has to be raised to around 8000 TWh by the middle of this century for India to sustain growth rates of 8-9 percent over that period and attain a reasonable level of development for around 1.5 billon people, as per estimates made by R.B. Grover ("National Framework for Governance of Nuclear Power"). Almost 40% of Indian households still lack an electricity connection and rely on primary sources such as a wood fire with the attendant health and environmental costs. On the other hand Grover sees electricity as the cleanest source of energy from an end-use perspective.

Obviously something other than volatile and polluting hydrocarbons will have to provide that electricity in the future, because as S. Banerjee points out ("Nuclear Power") even attaining an intermediate target of 400 GWe installed capacity by 2030 (from the present 200 GWe) through coal-fired means would entail burning more than 2 billion tonnes of coal annually and result in the emission of some 3 gigatonnes of CO2. Referenced a few times in this volume is a 2011 paper by Sukhatme (Current Science 101(5): 624-30) which shows that even if India settled for a very modest target of 2000 kWh PCEC by 2070 for a stabilized population of 1.7 billion and a power generation requirement of at least 3400 TWh/ yr, it would be unable to meet even half of this through renewable means, which have a total potential of only 1229 TWh/yr in the aggregate in India.

"India's vast requirements stand in stark contrast to some western countries that may be scaling back on nuclear power post-Fukushima and whose populations are declining."

India's vast requirements stand in stark contrast to some western countries that may be scaling back on nuclear power post-Fukushima and whose populations are declining.

In all, India expects to have 14,600 MWe of nuclear capacity online by 2020 – a target reduced from the 20,000 MWe that was being projected before Fukushima happened and protests broke out at Kudankulam.

Three-stage programme

Energy security coupled with climate change mitigation goals is a prime mover behind India's pursuit of a closed-cycle three-stage nuclear development programme in any case. Until the inclusion of large imported LWR technology in the mix, this programme was envisaged to consist of mainly natural uranium-fuelled PHWRs in the first stage and plutonium-driven sodium-cooled fast breeder reactors (SFRs) in the second stage. The third stage would ultimately be based on thorium- based thermal breeders, with the strategic aim of creating a favourable neutron economy that can breed enough fissile U-233 out of India's vast deposits of fertile Th-232 to provide sustainable electricity for generations on end. By the 2000s, while India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had created credible research & development (R&D) capability for all three legs through its two premier laboratories, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay, and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam, it had been able to commercialize only the first stage of India's programme.

Stage 1: Indigenous PHWRs

The first stage of India's programme at the moment has as its mainstay indigenously- developed PHWRs or IPHWRs of 220 MWe and 540 MWe size. This technology has been derived from the baseline CANDU design with a number of evolutionary upgrades over the years. All Indian reactors are owned and operated by the DAE-controlled Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), India's sole operating nuclear utility at the moment.

There are currently 15 of the 220 MW-class PHWRs in operation in India and two 540 MW PHWRs, Tarapur units 3&4.

Four new 700 MWe IPHWR-700s are currently under construction (Kakrapar 3&4 and Rajasthan 7&8). The IPHWR-700 has the same number of coolant channels as the 540 MWe design (392) but achieves a higher rating through partial boiling of heavy water in the coolant channels itself. The IPHWR-700 requires some 120 tonnes of natural uranium annually, loaded in bundles of 37 elements each, 12 at a time per channel. It is also equipped with a passive decay heat removal (PDHR) system. At least eight more IPHWR-700 reactors are slated to start construction by 2017 with inland sites for the same having already been identified and acquired.

NPCIL also continues to operate two 160 MWe GE Mk-I BWRs supplied under the 'Atoms for Peace' programme, Tarapur 1&2. But instead of rolling out a BWR-based fleet, India chose to build on the CANDU design after the BWR was embargoed post its first nuclear bomb test in 1974. NPCIL chose the CANDU design because it requires 30% less natural uranium than the BWRs, obviates the need for enrichment, and is also more suited to Indian industrial strengths, which could not fabricate reactor pressure vessels (RPVs) at the time.

"Currently India has agreed to place up to 14 reactors under IAEA safeguards by 2014 and these may be loaded with fuel fabricated from yellowcake and UO2 pellets imported since 2009."

Currently India has agreed to place up to 14 reactors under IAEA safeguards by 2014 and these may be loaded with fuel fabricated from yellowcake and UO2 pellets imported since 2009. (India has refused to put PFBR under safeguards however.)

Now with KKNP-I, large LWRs will be built in nuclear stations along India's long coastline on the proven twin-reactor basis. KKNP-I is expected to begin commercial operations later this year while its 'twin' KKNP-2 is expected to attain criticality by the end of 2014. Two follow-on reactors (probably VVER-1200s) are currently at an advanced stage of negotiation between the Indian and Russian governments with the latter having agreed to source components locally to reduce capital costs by up to 30 percent.

Stage 2: reaching a critical point

While the first stage of India's programme is moving forward, albeit slower than previously expected, its second stage is set to be inaugurated this year when the 500 MWe sodium-cooled Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) attains criticality possibly
in September-October. This pool-type reactor, which began construction in 2003, has two primary and two secondary loops with four steam generators per loop. It has been designed for a 40 year lifetime, with a load factor of 75% and will use mixed oxide (MOX) fuel composed of 30% plutonium oxide. Baldev Raj ("Science and technology of Sodium Cooled Fast Spectrum Reactors and Closed Fuel Cycles in Three Stage Program of India") explains that the 'pool and loop' design was chosen for PFBR because it exhibits 'large thermal inertia that permits high thermal shock and high structural reliability.' A case is also advanced for Indian industry being well-suited to address the complexities associated with this design by laying out a range of industrial innovation that has gone into PFBR, such as special cold-worked materials used in the core components for greater irradiation resistance.

However, Frank Von Hippel ("History and Current Status of Reprocessing and Plutonium Breeder-Reactor Programmes Worldwide") contends that with PFBR India is going down a path of commercializing SFRs attempted by others like Japan and France in the past, but who seem to have given up on it for the time being. Hippel believes that US Admiral Hyman Rickover's 1956 observation about the difficulties of SFRs has been mostly borne out by worldwide experience. It is further observed that at a price of $130/ kg, uranium contributes about $0.003 to the price of a kWh of nuclear electricity, and the elimination of this cost for SFRs would be approximately offset by the cost of reprocessing breeder fuel. Therefore in order to compete with water-cooled reactors, SFRs will have to do better on capital cost.

Raj however points out that the PFBR project has already yielded valuable technical insights. India is confident enough to move forward on six 500 MWe commercial FBRs (CFBRs) with the first two slated to be built in Kalpakkam next to PFBR itself by 2023. These CFBRs will exhibit improved design concepts that can lead to a material inventory reduction of up to 25 percent. Combined with the fact that two CFBRs will be built at a time, with optimum shielding, use of 304 LN steel in place of 316 LN steel for cold pool components and piping, design life of 60 instead of 40 years and an enhanced burn- up of up to 200,000 GWd/t, it is expected that they will boast superior economic performance than the PFBR. Higher burn-ups are seen as a way of lowering the life-cycle carbon footprint of nuclear power through a reduced need to mine uranium.

Succeeding CFBR between 2025-50 will be the Metallic FBR (MFBRs) rated at 1000 MWe using metallic Pu-U fuel for shorter doubling time (how long it takes a breeder reactor to make an equivalent amount of fissile fuel). MFBRs are expected to be the mainstay of India's nuclear fleet heading towards 2050.

"India's impetus to nuclear is driven by the fact that it is a non-fuel price-sensitive source that can hold down the cost of electrical energy, unlike fossil fuels."

Security of supply

Truth be told Indian SFRs will be competing not so much with water-cooled reactors but with fossil fuel plants that run on imported coal or gas, both of which are proving to be expensive and risky for India. India's impetus to nuclear is driven by the fact that it is a non-fuel price-sensitive source that can hold down the cost of electrical energy, unlike fossil fuels. The chief attraction of SFRs therefore lies in their ability to extend fissile inventories through the use of fertile blankets around the core to generate new fuel, thereby reducing India's future dependence on imported hydrocarbons.

Even though it is accepted by insiders like C. Ganguly ("An update of Uranium Fuel Cycle and the Challenges") that global uranium sources are plentiful for the next 100 years given current build projections, India's own modest uranium resources are mostly of very low grades (0.03-0.06 U3O8) and occur deep inside the earth. Ganguly believes that even with new mines and milling capacity India could end up importing 90% of the 8000 tonnes of uranium its first stage may need by 2025. Obviously India would not want to swap dependency on foreign oil with dependency on foreign uranium indefinitely, when energy from uranium can be extended by up to 60-70 times through multiple recycling in SFRs.

Also, the second stage of India's programme is designed to be a bridge to the third stage, that is the deployment of a U-233-Th-232 breeding cycle. The plan is to progressively introduce thorium blankets in Indian SFRs to increase the inventory of fissile U-233 which will then be loaded along with more Th-232 and Pu-239 in thermal breeders like the 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) designed by BARC and expected to see construction before 2017 once a site is finalized. India's vast thorium reserves could not only confer energy security but perhaps energy independence as well, besides a durable carbon-competitive industrial economy.

Commitment to a closed fuel cycle

India's re-entry into global nuclear trade has therefore only served to expand the scope of its three-stage programme and reinforced its commitment to a closed fuel cycle. This is why all LWR deals with India will have to be accompanied with a 'right to reprocess.'

Reprocessing is also central to India's spent fuel management philosophy, with advocates such as Raj stating that the waste management burden of spent fuel is reduced by about 200 times in terms of storage space through multiple recycles in SFRs.

Hippel's outline of the woes of Japan's Rokkasho facility and concerns about vitrifying high level liquid waste (HLLW) therefore do not deter Indian nuclear planners who are determined to set up an industrial scale Integrated Nuclear Recycle Plant to enable the reprocessing of foreign-origin fuel under safeguards. India already operates a few semi-industrial reprocessing plants, including the CORAL facility at IGCAR which has reprocessed fuel discharged at 155,000 MWd/t from India's existing fast breeder test reactor (FBTR) located there. India also has over four decades of experience in the globally established PUREX method and as per Raj's paper, comprehensive R&D activities are underway on pyro-processing, which would make sense when integrated core designs are unveiled for SFRs in the future. An Actinide Separation Demonstration Facility set up by BARC is operational in Tarapur which is in keeping with India's aim of ultimately fissioning minor actinides in SFRs.

Radiation, regulation and safety

As India scales up the first stage and moves forward on the use of more radiotoxic fissile sources in the second and third stage, public communication on radiation safety aspects will naturally have to scaled up as well. S.K. Apte ("Environmental Impact on Aquatic Ecosystems, Biodiversity, Agriculture and Human Health") outlines background radiation characteristics across India. Apte argues that given that studies in India have revealed that even relatively high doses of background radiation (up to 45 mGy/yr) have not caused adverse health effects, the ill effects that radiation levels from nuclear plants, which are nearly 100-fold lower, can cause to human populations is anybody's guess. However, S.A. Gadekar and S. Gadekar ("Observations Regarding the Health Impacts of Some Indian Nuclear Installations") stress the need for baseline studies in India with respect to installations and mines to settle such questions conclusively. The book wraps with an analysis of India's nuclear regulatory environment where R. Ramachandran ("Nuclear Safety: The Regulatory Framework") concludes that India's Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011 is a satisfactory initial step towards replacing India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) a truly independent nuclear watchdog.

The credibility of India's nuclear regulatory framework will of course be crucial in the years ahead, since there are plans to site AHWRs built as part of the third stage very close to existing cities in India given their inherent safety characteristics. The book however barely touches upon the third stage of India's nuclear programme. Only a passing mention by Raj indicates that there has been a debate within India's DAE as to the point at which thorium blankets should be introduced in SFRs since this would impinge on their doubling time. The omission of any papers on the third stage in the book is noteworthy especially because one of the chief architects of India's thorium R&D is presently in charge of DAE (R. K. Sinha). Moreover, access to international fissile sources has also opened up vistas for earlier deployment of thorium- based thermal breeders such as the 300 MWe low-enriched uranium variant (LEU) of the AHWR called AHWR-LEU (see also www. Indian R&D of molten salt reactors and accelerator-driven sub-critical systems has also gained pace in recent times and these may also contribute to earlier use of Th-232 in India's programme.

New direction?

Newer directions in the Indian programme such as design completion of an indigenous 900 MWe PWR have implications for India's future fleet mix as well. These developments all have linkages to India's expansion of its gas centrifuge enrichment programme with a new industrial-scale plant planned for Chitradurga, for which India wants non- proliferation trade restrictions lifted.

"Going forward it is clear that India's nuclear imports will need a domestic supply chain to stay competitive"

Owing to its restricted origin, the book is not a comprehensive guide to India's nuclear programme. It does not detail changing plant economics in terms of added capital costs on account of safety reinforcement post-Fukushima. KKNP-I has not just seen schedule overruns but a cost overruns of some 30 percent to finally come in at $1.5 billion dollars at current exchange rates. Going forward it is clear that India's nuclear imports will need a domestic supply chain to stay competitive with even plants burning foreign coal. It is here that an India-Japan civil nuclear agreement expected to be signed by India's new Narendra Modi-led BJP government assumes significance.

India's new government has of course promised to operationalize India's existing civil nuclear agreements, meaning a push towards building imported LWRs. However it remains to be seen whether the Americans will accept India's liability regime the way the Russians and now even the French have.

Safety standards

Though the Tarapur 1&2 BWRs are very similar to Fukushima Daiichi, they have gone through various safety uprates over the years in keeping with India's adoption of the standard defence- in-depth approach to nuclear safety as outlined by S. A. Bhardwaj ("Nuclear Reactor Safety"). Bhardwaj stresses that Indian plants use the double containment concept, one enveloping the other with the intervening space maintained at vacuum to reduce leak probability close to zero. The use of the thermosyphon effect, which involves a crash cool-down from steam generators in case of a loss of coolant accident (LOCA) under blackout conditions, is also a standard feature in Indian reactors. In fact this feature proved invaluable during the INES level III incident that took place at Narora Atomic Power Station in 1993.

The two VVER-1000s at Kudankulam of course boast some of the latest safety features standardized in Generation III designs including hermetically-sealed double containment, passive decay heat removal, redundant safety systems, additional shut down systems and a core catcher. Most of these safety features will be found on all future Indian LWRs.

Author information

Saurav Jha is the author of The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power (HarperCollins 2010). He can be reached at

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