The Fast-Breeder test reactor at Kalpakkam nuclear complex
Credit: IAEA

India has the political will and, increasingly, the technical know-how to deliver its ambitious nuclear programme. Jeremy Bowden finds out how the government’s plans are being kept on track.

India’s nuclear strategy is ambitious and long-term, yet it remains to be seen whether its decades-long commitment to a closed-cycle nuclear programme can produce the vast quantities of secure, safe and relatively cheap nuclear power originally envisaged.

The country has reached only the second stage of its three-stage nuclear programme – originally set out in the 1950s – but costs now compare very favourably with international alternatives. The real payoff will only come at stage three in 15-20 years’ time, when domestic thorium will fuel a generation of Advanced Heavy Water Reactors (AHWRs). There seems little doubt that the programme will continue, with strong support from both main parties in the runup to national elections due to start in April this year.

In the meantime, India’s acceptance into the international nuclear club in 2008 has facilitated the import of uranium and overseas plant technology, which should allow India to meet its nuclear generation targets – albeit at higher cost – while spurring local content development and helping create the possibility of Indian exports.

Dr Jonathan Cobb, senior communications manager at the World Nuclear Association (WNA), says: “India has had a long-standing nuclear generation programme. The isolation it has faced in the past means it has already put more effort in developing its own expertise, in particular in thorium and fast reactors. But the recent opportunities for international involvement and cooperation are important if India is to meet its long-term nuclear generation objectives.”

Nuclear power currently supplies less than 3 per cent of India’s power needs, with a total of 5.7 GW of capacity installed according to Shah Nawaz Ahmad, the WNA’s senior India advisor. “The Indian nuclear programme should not be judged from the 5700 MW installed capacity. It has progressed on a very broad front and its impact on the evolution of technology in India has been phenomenal, be it materials, electronics, manufacturing, quality assurance or even agriculture. In a sense, the Department of Atomic Energy has been the crucible for technological change in India.”

But while low-cost indigenous capabilities have been developed, questions remain over safety, with a toothless regulatory body overseeing the sector and multiple state and private companies involved in a plethora of programmes and joint ventures. There are also concerns over the economics of some imported nuclear options, as well as issues of liability and trade with Japan.

After a dip in 2008-09 due to shortages of nuclear fuel, the proportion of electricity generated from nuclear has been increasing steadily and looks set to continue rising, as imported uranium becomes available in the wake of bilateral agreements with the US, the UK, France and China.

Since about 2004 the nuclear target has been 20 GW by 2020, but in 2007 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said this could be “doubled with the opening up of international cooperation”.

India is increasing domestic uranium production as well, although it remains short of the fuel. But it is India’s rapid economic growth and shortage of fossil fuels, above all, that are driving the investment in nuclear.

To meet India’s growing needs, installed capacity of 700 GW is targeted by 2032, with 63 GW of that expected to be nuclear, including 40 GW of Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) capacity and 7 GW of new Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) capacity fuelled by imported uranium – although in December 2011 the Indian parliament was told that a more realistic target was 27.5 GW by 2032. By 2050, India expects nuclear to contribute at least 25 per cent of an anticipated 1094 GW.

Dr Cobb says: “India faces a challenging task to meet its overall energy demand projections. Within that overall challenge, a 25 per cent share for nuclear is feasible. The eventual installed capacity for nuclear energy for 2050, and the share of generation it represents, will depend on what success there is in improving the overall size and efficiency of their electricity supply infrastructure.”

Earlier this year Prime Minister Singh reaffirmed India’s commitment to nuclear power as a “dependable and clean option”. To meet its future power demand he said India aims to install more than 27 GW of nuclear capacity in the next ten years. According to the WNA’s Ahmad, India’s nuclear plans are robust – they have slipped somewhat but are likely to pick up after the elections. He agrees that the long-term targets are still felt to be achievable, especially with such a strong political consensus in favour.

Ahmad says the heavy, long-term investment in indigenous PHWRs is beginning to pay off, “because costs are now substantially lower than the other [imported] options”. This is because the design is now standardized, he adds, and “local manufacturers are tuned to the specific products”. He says that to help fund the rollout of the technology across the country, joint ventures with cash-rich Indian states and private companies were necessary, including NTPC, ONGC, IOC, and NALCO. But he notes such companies will always be the junior partners to state nuclear generator NPCIL, and some of the partnerships have yet to move beyond the discussion phase.

Regulatory issues

In late 2012, a parliamentary report on nuclear safety regulation in India highlighted serious organizational flaws and numerous failings when compared to international norms. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) – and its supposedly more powerful replacement, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India (2011) – remains subordinate to central government, and reports to the same officials responsible for overseeing the operation and expansion of India’s nuclear power stations.

Without independence from industry and government, the regulator cannot make autonomous decisions based purely on public safety, or compel a nuclear operator to implement improvements, as regulators can do in other countries. India has also not asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to review or comment on its regulatory system.

The country’s first reactor with foreign involvement, the 1000 MW NPCIL-Rosatom PWR, came on stream last year at Kudankulam, with the second expected to attain criticality by June.

Both plants had been delayed due to protests at Kudankulam. Ahmad says most opposition came in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster and had been at the sites, or proposed sites, of imported plants rather than those already running or new Indian plants. He says the government had responded by organizing the AERB to conduct safety audits for existing reactors, which had calmed domestic concerns.

Dr Cobb agrees: “Having faced opposition to the plants now beginning operation, lessons will have been learnt,” he says. “Better communication and dialogue should help ensure future plants come on stream with fewer delays.” NPCIL claims an accident like Fukushima is not possible at its reactors – many of which are on the coast and so exposed to tsunamis – due to their ‘thermo-siphoning’ system, which it says reduces the generation of excessive heat.

Inside the control room of Kalpakkam Fast-Breeder test reactor
Credit: IAEA

Thorium and self-sufficiency

With huge reserves of easily accessible thorium and relatively little uranium, India has made the use of the former for large-scale energy production a major goal.

Utilizing a three-stage concept with reprocessing necessary after each stage to recover fissile materials, India has adopted a closed fuel system, which uses uranium and plutonium, as well as thorium, and produces far less radioactive waste.

The first-stage uranium-fuelled PHWR reactors are now providing plutonium for the second-stage 500 MW Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), which will in turn produce the fuel needed to unlock the energy potential of thorium in third-stage Advanced Heavy Water Reactors (AHWRs). This will take another 15-20 years, and so it will still be some time before India is using thorium as a fuel to any extent. The first 500 MW prototype FBR in Kalpakkam, which is being developed by NPCIL’s state-owned sister company Bhavini, is in an advanced stage of construction and is expected to go operational later this year.

India’s capabilities and technologies could attract a lot more attention from foreign markets as the debate over whether to adopt closed fuel cycles continues elsewhere. “In the nuclear power sector, India has mastered the entire fuel cycle,” says Ahmad. International experts have already acknowledged that the Indira Gandhi Nuclear Research Centre is becoming a leader in research and nuclear fuel recycling.

Private sector investors

The Indian government has also invited private companies to invest in nuclear power generation, but without direct foreign investment, leading to interest from domestic giants Reliance Power, GVK Power & Infrastructure and GMR Energy, along with overseas nuclear vendors including Areva, GE-Hitachi, Westinghouse and Atomstroyexport.

Ahmad says the four imported technologies (Rosatom, Areva, Westinghouse and GE) are all likely to go ahead despite current delays, although there continues to be “some discussion about price and much discussion about liability law”.

He says the imported reactors will be additional to the domestic programme and will each add approximately 10,000 MW, possibly more. Each technology will be centred on a single site. Areva is in talks with NPCIL for two EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) units at Jaitapur. Areva spokeswoman Katherine Berezowsky says the company is looking forward to the launch of the Early Works Agreement, signed in 2010, and to reaching terms on the contract.

There have been concerns among overseas suppliers over India’s 2010 Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act, which extended suppliers’ liability into areas that had previously been the responsibility of the operator, as it remains everywhere outside India. Berezowsky says the nuclear civil liability act and its implementation rules are not clear. “We expect that once the provisions are clarified, a legal framework acceptable for suppliers, like Areva, will be defined.”

Ahmad says India is willing to make reasonable adjustments within the scope of the law. He adds that there is no clear liability law in China, but suppliers are still willing to invest there.

Dr Cobb notes that the international links are also important for meeting India’s uranium needs. “There are prospects for increasing domestic supply, but for the foreseeable future imports will remain important.” Berezowsky backs this up, pointing out that fuel supply was an important part of her company’s role: “In December 2010, Areva and NPCIL signed agreements for the supply of fuel for 25 years”, alongside the construction deal for the first two EPR reactors.

Earlier, following the Indo-French Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008, Areva signed a deal to provide lifetime fuel supply to six of the 1650 MW EPRs at Jaitapur.


Ahmad says another part of the rationale behind inviting international participation was to enable India to supply equipment to the international sector. “The imported plants will come, and with them they bring more technology and expand India’s specialist manufacturing base,” he says.

The latest obstacle to progress on overseas reactors has been delays in signing a deal with Japan, where Areva, GE and Westinghouse all have components manufactured. Berezowsky says Areva hopes “it could be signed in the near future” and “once signed, it will surely benefit all the nuclear reactor suppliers, including Areva.”

Ahmad says it is up to India’s foreign partners, including Areva, to convince the Japanese to allow the export of nuclear components to India. The delay could raise costs and the price per unit for the Areva plants at Jaitapur, which are already expected to be more than $0.15/kWh when the first plant comes on stream in 2021. This compares to just $0.07/kWh at units 1 and 2 of the Indo-Russian Kudankulam plant, which is similar to coal-fired plants. The estimate for Westinghouse’s proposed plant at Mithi Virdi (which also requires Japanese components) could be even higher at $0.20/kWh. Ahmad notes that the plants would eventually have to compete in an open market.

With such a long-term plan, the biggest danger is perhaps that technology will overtake events. Already, on economic grounds alone, overseas nuclear looks vulnerable to low-cost solar. But Dr Cobb says there is enough demand for both nuclear and other low-carbon generation to proceed. “If India is going to generate more electricity sustainably it will need strong contributions from renewables such as solar. But the scale of increase in generation required means that it is unlikely that the success of one low-carbon generation source will constrain the development of another. And there will remain a demand for the dependable generation that, unlike some other low-carbon options, nuclear power plants reliably produce.”

Jeremy Bowden is a freelance writer, specialising in the energy sector.

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