India: tomorrow's giant?

27 October 2004

Foreign companies flock to China in the hope of securing orders in what may be the world’s greatest nuclear power programme (see NEI August 2004), but prospects are rather thin elsewhere. The USA is a possibility but persuading tough-minded utilities to invest in something which requires a significant wad of cash but sells to short-term liberalised markets is difficult. The fifth Finnish reactor is a beacon in Europe but political cowardice in facing the long-term energy supply situation means that there is more talk of shutting down existing reactors than of building new ones. This ethos unfortunately also applies to the new entrant countries to the European Union (EU), despite stronger political support for nuclear there. Russia still has ambitious plans for new nuclear plants and Ukraine and Kazakhstan may also become serious prospects. Yet there remains one other country with a rapidly growing nuclear sector.

Among all the statements of 'keeping the nuclear option open' (in other words, we’ll try to do without it, but we may have to reluctantly swallow our medicine) there is one country in the world which has a clear, strong political commitment to nuclear power. The fact that it also has the second largest population (and may soon become number one) and is also is a vibrant democracy should cause more people to stand up and take notice.

At the Johannesburg Earth Summit in October 2002, India affirmed its commitment to nuclear power as an essential element of its sustainable development strategy. This was sufficient to see off anti-nuclear resolutions designed to constrain the industry everywhere. This political statement in favour of nuclear is, indeed, far stronger than that of China, where government support has wavered in the past and even today is rather conditional (on matters such as economics and proof of absolute safety).

From only 2.5GWe of net nuclear generating capacity today, India plans to increase this to 20GWe in 2020. This will prove challenging, but is only a drop in the ocean compared with its longer term vision. India recognises that its economic growth aspirations (a similar rate of growth to that achieved by China in the recent past) cannot be accomplished without exploitation of its significant coal resources (as per China). So up to 2020, new coal plants will continue to dominate the growth of electricity generating capacity. The environmental consequences of coal are well-recognised, however, and it is the intention beyond 2020 to increasingly rely upon nuclear for power generation, with capacity heading towards 100GWe and then well beyond.

There is one major constraint on India’s plans in that they need to be largely achieved by self-sufficiency in the nuclear fuel cycle. This is because of India’s refusal to sign the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which it sees as discriminatory as it does not accept India as a nuclear weapons state. China exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1964 and India in 1974, but between these dates, the treaty came into force. This allows India only the option of renouncing nuclear weapons and taking what it regards as the inferior status of a non-weapons state. Owing to its security concerns about China and Pakistan, India refuses to do this and seeks equal recognition with the five weapons states, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In an effort to induce expanded participation in the NPT in 1992, an informal club of nations called the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) decided to prohibit all nuclear commerce with those which have not agreed to accept full-scope safeguards on their nuclear materials. This effectively requires countries to accede to the NPT if they are to participate in nuclear commerce. India’s response has been to intensify its efforts to achieve self-reliance with a dual policy of maintaining a small nuclear deterrent while pursuing peaceful nuclear power on a major scale.

India’s self-sufficiency extends from uranium exploration and mining through fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design and construction, to reprocessing and spent fuel management. It has a small Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) and a much larger one is now under construction. It is also developing technology to utilise its abundant resources of thorium as a nuclear fuel. Its uranium resource base is relatively weak and it is the denial of access to the international market which constitutes the major challenge to be overcome.


Indian plans are entirely feasible if the technical challenges can be overcome

Plans for the future are in three stages. Stage 1, already reached, employs Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) fuelled by natural uranium to generate electricity and produce plutonium as a by-product. Stage 2 uses FBRs burning the plutonium to breed U-233 from thorium. Finally, stage 3 forsees Advanced Heavy Water Reactors (AHWRs) burning the U-233 with thorium, obtaining about 75% of their power from the thorium.

India’s reactor plans have in the past been badly affected by many delays and poor operating load factors, which today mean that some outside observers doubt its ability to achieve the current plans. However, it is clear that both the construction programme and reactor operations improved considerably in the 1990s – reactor load factors are now at 85%. India’s recent economic performance has also been much-improved, in contrast to the previous dismal record. The 14 current reactors of aggregate 2.5GWe capacity include two small Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) from the USA and two small Canadian PHWRs which all predate the NSG controls. The remainder are ten local 200MWe PHWRs, based on a Canadian design. The share of nuclear in Indian power generation reached 3.7% in 2002-3 and will now rise towards 10% with the existing construction programme. There are now six PHWRs included in this, two with increased capacity of 490MWe, plus two VVER-1000s from Russia. The export of Russian technology escapes the NSG controls because the project is long-standing, predating the establishment of NSG. It rather stands outside India’s 3-stage plan for nuclear and is an attempt to expand nuclear generating capacity more rapidly. Construction of all these reactors is running on or ahead of schedule. In addition, work has started on the first 500MWe prototype FBR, which is expected to enter operation in 2011.

To achieve the target of 20GWe of nuclear capacity by 2020, a major construction programme will have to take place from 2010 onwards. This will comprise a mix of higher capacity (680MWe) PHWRs, 500MWe FBRs, 1000MWe VVER-1000s (up to six are envisaged at the Kudankulam site, plus initial AHWRs. There will also have to be major investments made in the electricity grid across India, where it is currently difficult to absorb the power from such large generating units.

The Indian nuclear sector is well-organised under the direct control of the Department of Atomic Energy. The Uranium Corporation of India operates underground uranium mines and is developing the extensive thorium resources. These account for about one quarter of the world total and contrast with the poor position in uranium, with only 54,000 tonnes of reasonably assured resources. The Nuclear Fuel Complex at Hyderabad is responsible uranium refining and conversion and also for fuel fabrication for all reactors. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India builds, owns and operates the nuclear power plants. The research and development facilities are impressive, including the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre near Mumbai and the Indira Ghandi Centre for Atomic Research. There are clearly many technical challenges to be overcome in moving towards a thorium-based fuel cycle, but this is a necessity given India’s current isolation.

The question remains as to whether this isolation can be ended. Hopes that India (plus Pakistan and Israel) will eventually sign the NPT seem entirely misplaced. An overhaul of the entire world non-proliferation regime is clearly now required, taking account of current realities. This is only at the very early stages but there is at least some hope that India may gain access to overseas technology and materials well before 2020, allowing it to fine-tune its strategy. To India’s credit, it has always been scrupulous in ensuring that its weapons material and technology are guarded against commercial or illicit export to other countries. This contrasts with the position of Pakistan, whose enrichment technology has been diverted to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Strong political backing for nuclear power is clearly a necessary precondition for its success. India’s commitment is praiseworthy, in particular that it is linked to a long-term environmental policy. The consequences of a one-billion-plus population reaching much higher levels of per capita power consumption through the use of fossil fuels will be considerable and a shift towards nuclear beyond 2020 provides an answer to this. Most long-term energy scenarios with low carbon emissions incorporate rather unrealistic assumptions for the role of renewables in power generation, but the Indian plans are entirely feasible if the technical challenges can be overcome. If its current isolation from nuclear trade can be ended, confidence in their achievement will be further enhanced.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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