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Posted at: May 19, 2017, 12:43 AM; last updated: May 19, 2017, 12:43 AM (IST)

A great nuclear leap forward?

Sandeep Dikshit
The building of 10 pressurised heavy water reactors will give local industry volumes of scale. The government has been proactive but questions remain over land acquisition & the industry’s capacity to produce such a large quantity of components.
A great nuclear leap forward?
Power trip: The Kakrapar atomic power station in Gujarat. Indian nuclear scientists have enhanced the safety features of this source of electricity to avoid a Fukushima-type meltdown.
THE Government’s approval to build 10 nuclear reactors in one go has provided teeth to last year’s plan to give a major fillip to the indigenous industry in this sector. The Centre has now solved two of the four problems that have thwarted attempts by previous governments to give a big boost to the indigenous nuclear power industry. The previous government had also toyed with a similar idea. It did succeed in resolving the issue of importing uranium in large quantities by getting a special exemption for India from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG). But it could not find solutions to availability of financial resources, land acquisition, availability of water and a continuous supply chain of component and equipment.

The Modi government resolved the issue of financial resources in last year's Budget when it allotted Rs 3,000 crore in equity to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). Presenting the Budget for 2016-17, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley promised that the government will provide this amount from the Budget for the next 15 to 20 years. He revealed that the plan was to set up 10 nuclear reactors with a combined capacity of 7,700 mw. This Rs 3,000 crore will certainly be inadequate for 10 nuclear reactors of 770 mw. Hence the government has amended the Atomic Energy Act that abolishes the monopoly of NPCIL and permits Central PSUs to dabble in nuclear energy. These CPSUs are expected to bring in Rs 7,000 crore to augment the promised Rs 3,000 crore in equity to NPCIL. The amendment to the Atomic Energy Act was a UPA proposal. A 400-page tome was even readied in 2010. The government’s political troubles as well as technical problems in the indigenous 770 mw reactors forced it to shelve the proposal. The UPA did try to mend fences in the civil-nuclear sector with Canada in 2014 but Ontario did not respond favourably, possibly because the Manmohan Singh government had by then lost considerable political capital and it made sense to wait for the next government.

Canada was critical in resolving issues bedevilling the indigenous 770 mw pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) because of its firm hold on the nuts and bolts of this technology tellingly called CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium). It helped India take baby steps in CANDU technology but Canada broke all civil-nuclear contacts as it suspected India had conducted the nuclear tests in 1974 by diverting uranium from its CANDU reactors. The government was quick to pick up the loose threads left by the previous government and inked a civil nuclear agreement with Canada when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Ottawa within a year of taking office. This opened the path to fresh contact with the Canada-based Candu Owners Group that held the key to resolving many of the glitches in India’s 770 mw PHWRs. 

The Modi government has not invented the wheel. A few 770 mw PHWRs are at an advanced stage of construction at Rawatbhata and Kakrapar atomic power complexes. Since a nuclear reactor takes at least a decade to construct, it is obvious the process was started by the previous government. In fact, one of them is undergoing hydrostatic tests or testing critical components for strength and leaks. Besides amending the Atomic Energy Act to resolve the problem of huge financial funds, the Modi government was successful in persuading Canada to give up on its four-decade insistence of not doing business with India in the civil-nuclear business. 

The approval to construct 10 reactors in one go will also cut down on the time taken in putting up such plants to a more reasonable time frame of four to five years. This is because the industry will now have an assured order book position, instead of the previous government's practice of giving order for components for one or two nuclear plants. The lower gestation period and volumes of scale for components will in turn reflect in lower electricity tariffs for the consumer.

But the supply chain issue is still to be resolved. The existing manufacturers may not have the capacity to take up component manufacturing on such a large scale. The Prime Minister has sought to resolve the issue by encouraging frequent visits of Canadian component manufacturers and they could be expected to lend a helping hand. Preliminary talks have already been held last year and the subject was discussed during the visits of several Canadian ministers, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

But the two of the four main issues are yet to be resolved: the supply of water and land acquisition. In some cases such as more plants in Gorakhpur (Haryana) can be resolved because all it requires is purchasing land next to the site of units currently under installation. But in case of green field projects that will have to be set up close to source of water, the opposition could be expected to agitate as such land is invariably under cultivation.

Indian nuclear scientists have tried to resolve safety issues, following the meltdown of the Fukushima plant in Japan and are confident that the 770 mw is safer than before to withstand natural calamities. The large number of nuclear plants can also help produce large inventory of Uranium 223. Under India's three-stage programme (still derided by other nuclear power countries as utopian), this can be combined with Thorium, present in abundant quantities in sands of coastal India, to produce even cheaper electricity for the consumer. Provided the land acquisition and supply chain management issues are resolved.

N-Shakti way to go

  • The 10 reactors will be installed in Kaiga in Karnataka (Unit 5 and 6), Chutka in Madhya Pradesh (Unit 1 and 2), Gorakhpur in Haryana (Unit 3 and 4) and Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan (Unit 1, 2, 3 and 4).
  • This will prove to be the largest ever fillip to the indigenous nuclear industry by assuring an assured orders in sufficient volumes. 
  • The reliability problem of 770 mw reactors has been resolved but the government must provide a detailed blueprint to the industry to set the wheels in motion.
  • The Centre has allocated Rs 3,000 in equity to NPCIL for the past two years but it is not known whether the CPSUs have come up with the required Rs 7,000 crore for each year.
  • The industry may not take up manufacturing of components right away as it will like to wait and judge the government's ability to buy prime farm land, next to the source of water.


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