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Abandon the import of nuclear reactors: Dr A Gopalakrishnan

by Dr A Gopalakrishnan, 6 April 2011

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Abandon the import of nuclear reactors: Dr A Gopalakrishnan

Published: Daily News and Analysis, April 4, 2011

Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

The decision taken by the government to import about 40,000 MWe of Light Water Reactors (LWRs) within the next two decades, has no justifiable technical or economic basis. In spite of repeated demands from various quarters, including Parliament, no document on India’s nuclear power policy has ever been presented by the government for debate.

The prime minister stated on March 29, 2011, “Today India has fully demonstrated its capabilities in all the scientific and technological aspects associated with the design, development, construction, operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors and associated fuel cycle facilities. We owe this to the success of the indigenous three-stage programme whose foundation was laid by Dr Homi Bhabha.” Here, he is referring to India’s present capability to design and build up to 700 MWe capacity Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). With the demonstrated indigenous expertise of having designed, built and operated 17 PHWRs on our own up to 540 MWe capacity, and with four 700 MWe PHWR construction projects in hand, there is no reason why India has to diversify its nuclear fleet to include several new types of foreign reactors, of which neither Indians nor foreigners have any experience so far.

The reason for bringing in imported reactors is neither technology driven nor is it for the economic benefit of the country. In the context of the need to maximise plutonium production from the first stage reactors to rapidly advance along the three-stage Bhabha Plan, it should be noted that the Indian PHWRs are the most efficient plutonium producers, far superior to the high burn-up LWRs which DAE is planning to import. We have complete mastery of PHWR technology, with three generations of engineers and scientists who have been trained in all facets of related activities, with existing full capabilities for its manufacture and fabrication within Indian industries. These capabilities are already demonstrated and today we have the inherent indigenous ability to further extend the PHWR designs to 1000 MWe rating.

The natural uranium to fuel the PHWRs and the production and availability of most of the critical components for these reactors are indigenously assured to a great extent and, if necessary, these can be supplemented with item-wise imports, which are now permissible under the NSG clearance. As for costs, a 700 MWe PHWR can be built within a capital cost of Rs8 crore/MWe, whereas a 1650 MWe French EPR at Jaitapur will cost the tax-payer more than Rs21 crore/MWe.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) had framed a nuclear power plan prior to 2004, a copy of which is available at the DAE website [“A Strategy for Growth of Electrical Energy in India”, http://www.dae.gov.in/publ/doc10/index.htm]. According to Table-11 of this document, the DAE had confirmed that 208,000 MWe of nuclear power can be generated in India by 2052 using Indian uranium resources, without having to import even a single reactor beyond the two Russian VVERs at Kudankulam, which were by then under construction. This itself would mean a string of 208 nuclear reactors, each of 1000 MWe capacity, to be set up along our ecologically fragile coastal regions by 2050!

With Manmohan Singh coming in as prime minister in 2004, the US administration sensed a new-found opportunity to push hard for a strategic alliance with India. Among the US objectives were the desire to bring several of our PHWR installations under IAEA safeguards, to revive the moribund US nuclear industry by selling US-design nuclear reactors to India, slow down and eventually stop India’s indigenous nuclear programme based on the Bhabha Plan which successive prime ministers had been nurturing for decades, and to get India diverted away from the plan to utilise its thorium resources through building fast-breeder reactors. The prime minister’s office (PMO), for the first time in our history, spearheaded an informal alliance of few key politicians, the US and Indian corporate sectors and their federations interested in profiteering from the Indian nuclear power business, along with a small group of top-level officials in the PMO, the DAE, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), etc, who collectively helped the PM all along to make a baseless case for import of reactors, without any qualms about ignoring the ethical and professional norms which they were expected to uphold.

Throughout the years of deliberations on the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was also kept out of the loop and not even consulted on the safety and reliability of reactors to be imported. This collective also successfully kept Parliament and the people of India deliberately in the dark throughout this decision-making process. And all this is still continuing under cover of the Official Secrets Act, which is unnecessarily being applied to this civilian nuclear power sector, mainly to hush up the irrational policy decisions and the questionable financial deals between the government and corporate business houses.

By 2007-2008, the PM had taken a unilateral decision to import at least 10,000 MWe LWRs from the US and he asked the then foreign secretary to make this promise in writing to the US state department. It would now appear that the PM had most likely made a firm commitment to the French president as well, to similarly import six of their still un-built & untested Evolutionary Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) at an exorbitant cost. Both these actions were taken without informing Parliament and without seeking any detailed techno-economic or safety analysis to justify this approach. The present secretary DAE and his two predecessors, the CMD of NPCIL, the then foreign secretary & national security adviser and a few of the top corporate business leaders appear to have been privy to these decisions, which were developed and taken in close liaison with the PM. The top echelons in the PMO, DAE, NPCIL etc. went along with these illogical decisions, taken mostly out of political compulsions and as a quid pro quo to the foreign governments, who helped India in getting the IAEA & NSG clearances, and as a reward to the nuclear industries in India and abroad.

By early 2008, at the height of the opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal, the PM felt it would be safer to have a scientific fig leaf for his unilateral and illogical decisions. The then secretary DAE, along with his close associates in NPCIL and the PMO, severely and irrationally modified the 2004 DAE nuclear plan and came up with a statement that the country needs to urgently import 40,000 MWe of LWRs in the 2012-2020 period to avoid a 412,000 MWe electricity generation gap which would otherwise occur by 2052 ! This revised policy is also now available at the DAE website [“Evolving Indian Nuclear Programme – Rationale and Perspective, Public Lecture by Dr Anil Kakodkar, Indian Academy of Science, Bangalore, July 04, 2008, http://www.dae.gov.in/lecture/paperiasc.pdf]. The projection of the DAE is that India will then be able to use the additional plutonium from these imported LWRs to augment the power generation through fast breeder reactors by approximately an additional 340,000 MWe. With this addition, the DAE projects India will have a total of about 655,000 MWe nuclear power generation by the year 2050. That will be 655 nuclear power reactors each of 1000 MWe capacity, strung along a total coastline of about 6000 kilometres the country has – about 109 six-reactor nuclear parks, spaced along the coast every 55 kilometres apart!

What a mad programme! Even without Fukushima happening, should we be subjecting our future generations to such a crazy, high-density nuclear programme in 2050, just so that this PM can justify importing 40,000 MWe foreign nuclear plants? The prime minister and his PMO, DAE & NPCIL officials of the present and past must be held culpable, if this is indeed the thoughtless nuclear power path they have been charting for us.

Under the above circumstances, the government must immediately and permanently cancel all plans to import foreign nuclear reactors, irrespective of the unauthorised promises given by the prime minister to foreign governments and any preliminary agreements which NPCIL may have signed with foreign companies. The entire subject of the Nuclear Power Policy under the Manmohan Singh governments needs a thorough debate in Parliament and should be openly discussed with energy specialists in the country. It should be preceded by a re-look at the overall energy policy of our country to assess whether all viable non-nuclear electricity generation schemes have been given their due priority, before we jump-start an extensive nuclear power programme, even if it is based on the Bhabha Plan. Plans for conservation of electricity, loss minimisation, use of renewables, and the preparation of a clearly aggregated minimum electricity demand projection are also to be emphasised simultaneously.

The writer is former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board [India]