Nuclear Energy and Research in India

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Nuclear Energy and Research in India

Kudankulam power plant

Written by Ninoto exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Yoana

Challenged by the inevitable trend of depleting fossil fuel based energy sources, the volatility of fuel prices in the market, the rising concerns for climate change and global warming and the need to harness maximum output out of cleaner alternative like nuclear energy, India sees nuclear energy as a vital component in its energy security equation and a paramount factor in maintaining its high economic growth and development. The nuclear energy option is seen as a viable solution which will address concerns such as the incessant pressure by the developed countries in the international platforms on India to reduce its carbon emissions and coupled with India’s domestic electricity scarcity (some 300 million Indians do not have secure electricity connection).

India’s civilian nuclear policy is a three stage process, starting from setting up of Pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR) in the first stage. Then, it’s the upgrading to fast breeder reactors (FBR) and reprocessing plants based on plutonium in the second stage, and finally, it’s the setting up of thorium-233 reactors. Realizing the third stage is critical to India’s self-sufficiency in its nuclear programme. So far, only the first stage is implemented on a 100%. The second stage awaits operational trials and clearance and the third stage is under development at Indira Gandhi Centre for atomic research (IGCAR) and at Bhaba atomic research centre (BARC).

Nuclear research in India is spearheaded by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), under which several organizations, companies and Institutes are associated. Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai deals in the areas of reactor engineering, nuclear physics, fuel reprocessing and environmental safety. The prototype thorium heavy water reactors designed in BARC are under experimental trials, its operationalization would be a massive success for India who has one of the largest thorium reserves in the world.

The Canter for Advanced Technology in Indore deals with the critical fields of cryogenics, lasers and accelerators. IGCAR Kalapakkam researches into fast breeder test reactors, Variable Energy Cyclotron in Kolkata experiments on heavy ion acceleration and superconducting cyclotrons. Indian scientists have achieved proficient levels of technical ability in the field of nuclear sciences but they are constrained by the lack of infrastructure for cutting edge experimentation and research. There also are a few other institutions including Tata Institute of Fundemental Research in Mumbai and Institute of Plasma Research, Ahmedabad, involved in collaboration with the DAE for advancing nuclear technology capabilities of India.

India is a participant in the International Thermonuclear fusion reactor project that is being built in Cadarche, south France along with Japan, Russia, EU, China, South Korea and US. The construction for the project is estimated to be completed by 2019 and the initiate plasma experiments ae expected to be finished after 2020.

As of present, the total Uranium reserves in India are estimated to be about 90,000 tonnes, with 5000 tonnes as strategic reserves. It possess 0.63 million Tonnes of thorium and 8 million tonnes of the parent monazite. India also possesses approximately 0.54 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium and 2.4 tonnes of Highly Enriched Uranium respectively. The Uranium Corporation of India under the Department of Atomic energy is the leading agency, responsible for mining and milling of uranium and other nuclear energy ores. The mines are located in the states of Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. Recently, explorations showed the hitherto unknown reserves in Tummalapalle district of Andhra Pradesh, which holds the largest reserve of Uranium and India and ranks as one of the largest in the world. Uranium reserves have been discovered in other Indian states as well but due to protests from the local communities and environmental concerns raised by activists, the progress is halted.

India produced 1250MT of Uranium in 2015, which was more than the demand for the year. The annual requirement of uranium for operating the 700MW reactors at 80% efficiency is 650MT. With the increasing number of reactors and steep power requirement, India will have to rely on uranium fuel supplies from the NSG to feed its reactors as India’s own reserves will be insufficient.

Nuclear power plants in India are operated and maintained by the state owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). It is the only player in the nuclear energy market of India and is regulated by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which till recently was under total state influence. AERB had to restructure its board composition and function owing to criticism from the IAEA and US citing nuclear governance safety concerns.

NPCIL has seven nuclear power stations operating 21 reactors with an installed capacity of 5,780MW, which accounts for 3.5% of the total electricity generated in the country from all sources. They are mostly Pressurized heavy water reactors. The largest reactor is located at Kundakulam in Tamil Nadu state, which is a water-water energetic reactor (VVER) built with Russian Collaboration. NPCIL is also into contract with the French company Electricite de France (EDF) for building 6 nuclear reactors at Jatipur, each with a capacity of 1650MW. With 7 more nuclear reactors under construction, over time India aims to produce 10,000 MW of nuclear power by 2017, 27,000MW by 2025 and at least 60,000MW by 2052 using nuclear energy.

US powerhouses General Electric and Westinghouse decided not to invest in the country’s legal complications with India’s Civil Nuclear liability Act. The contention arose out of clauses 17 and 46 of the Act, which puts the entire onus for compensation on the foreign supplier in an event of reactor meltdown and a catastrophe. India’s Civil Nuclear Liability Act has been widely criticized by NSG members, particularly the United States and Japan. However, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear incident in Japan gives credibility to India’s concern and the need for such stringent clauses in the Act. If the deal with the US sees light then it will mark the entry of Indian private industries into nuclear energy sector.

On the other hand Russia has, in principle, agreed to India’s Civil Nuclear Liability law. NPCIL and the Russian firm Atomstroyexport have come to consensus on the General Framework Agreement for the Kundakulam Plant. The Kundakulam reactor 1 was successfully built with the assistance from Russian firm. The firm is also constructing Unit 3 and Unit 4 VVER reactors for the same plant. With a further promise to build 10-12 more reactors in the future, Russia seems to be a promising partner in realizing India’s nuclear energy ambition at this conjecture.

In the past India had secretly but indigenously developed its nuclear weapons capabilities to secure the country’s policy of credible minimum nuclear deterrence. Due to India’s nuclear weapons programme, it remains to be a non-signatory to the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and had till recently been prohibited from trading in nuclear materials and technologies. India is also a non signatory to the Comprehensive nuclear test ban Treaty (CTBT).

Following the successful 123 nuclear agreement with the United States, India was given a clean chit by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to receive nuclear fuel and technology for civilian utility under the over watch of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for its civil nuclear reactors. Today India has signed a basket of civilian nuclear cooperation agreements, with France, Mongolia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Argentina, USA, South Korea, and Russia. Under the agreement, the exports of uranium fuel to India is mandated for use only in power generation and research for civilian purposes.

In the new architecture of global nuclear governance India is proactively taking steps to cement a responsible and respectable position for itself. This is evident in it’s intended nationally determined Contributions (INDC) submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Clime Change (UNFCCC), India proposed to voluntarily cut down carbon emissions to 33-35% by 2030. Currently India relies on coal based thermal plants for up to 60% of the total generated power. The non fossil energy source base contributes 30% of the total power being generated, which is projected to reach 40% by 2030. To achieve this target India plans to increase its renewable power capacity up to 175 GigaWatts by 2022, with nuclear energy contributing up to 70GW. Thus the country has set high targets for itself and seeks assistance and cooperation from the international community to meet the deadlines.

In the next few decades India will need to maintain its import of Uranium fuel supplies and advanced nuclear reactor technology from the NSG to keep its commitment. Building strategic partnerships with individual countries will ensure uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel essential for powering its growth. India needs to progress quickly into the second and third stages of its nuclear programme if it wants to fulfil its long term goals of energy security.

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