Easier availability of fuel after the nuclear deal will aid expansion of India’s nuclear programme.
Seven years ago, in July 2005, the Manmohan-Bush accord marked the beginning of the end of India’s nuclear isolation. India’s nuclear programme is now set for a boost in the months ahead, when Kudankulam-1 begins operations and adds 1,000 MWe of capacity.
The coming on stream of this plant will be a big boon to the power-deficit Tamil Nadu, the deficit being of the order of 4,000 MW. The adverse publicity from the Fukushima disaster and the orchestrated but misinformed campaign against the plant have died down.
Kudankulam-2 unit will also come on stream next year, while the 500-MWe prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam is also set to begin operations. Seven nuclear power reactors with 5,300 MWe capacity are expected to be operational by 2016-end, adding to the 20 reactors currently operating with a capacity of 4,780 MWe. Meanwhile, new reactor projects are envisaged, in collaboration with Areva of France, Russia and other partners. Eight more reactors would be put under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency by 2014, in addition to six already under the plan for civil-strategic separation.
A bright feature is that the capacity factor of operating NPCIL reactors has shot up from a low of 50 per cent in 2008-09, to 83 per cent in the current year. This is no doubt due to the increased availability of fuel as a result of India being given the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers’ Group) waiver.
Agreements have been concluded with uranium-supplying countries such as France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Namibia and Mongolia. Though India’s uranium resources could support its present programme, the availability of imported uranium helps considerably.
The new projects envisaged include a mix of the traditional pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) of 700 MWe (10 units to be set up by NPCIL), and foreign-supplied pressurised water reactors (PWRs), of 1,000-MWe-plus capacity from Russia (Kudankulam 3-6), France (Jaitapur 1-2), and finally two fast breeder reactors of 500 MWe to be set up by Bhavini Corporation. The average costs of the indigenous PHWRs is around $1,200 a kWe while for the foreign supplied plants, the cost would be in the range of $2,000 a kWe, while the Department of Atomic Energy has set a benchmark for capital cost of $1,600 per kWe.
Apart from higher costs, the foreign-supplied reactors are of the PWR type. These require low-enriched uranium fuel, which must be imported and consequently are subject to international safeguards and vulnerable to external pressures.
The reactor has to be shut down for refuelling and spent fuel has to be accounted for according to the fuel-supply agreement. These units require a massive steel reactor pressure vessel (RPV) weighing over 500 tonnes, and can only be manufactured in a few countries such as Japan, whose consent will be required for supply. The capacity for building such massive RPVs is available only in a few places, and is expensive and specialised. It is unlikely that any Indian company could meet this challenge.
The PWR reactor vessel is especially susceptible to damage due to intense neutron bombardment. This can embrittle the steel, or make it less tough and less capable of withstanding flaws which may be present. Embrittlement usually occurs at a vessel’s “beltline,” that section of the vessel wall closest to the reactor fuel. Monitoring of material damage is indirect and difficult.
The life of RPVs in PWRs is at present limited to around 40 years, after which the entire plant has to be closed down and decommissioned. Research is on on the issue extension of lifespan of RPVs for PWRs but the picture is not clear. These issues have gained importance in recent years as many of the world’s PWRs are reaching the 40-year limit. These factors need to be kept in view while going in for imported PWRs.
On the other hand, the CANDU type PHWRs being used in India today has several advantages. They do not have to be shut down for refuelling and can use natural uranium. They have more flexibility in fuel use, including use of thorium and mixed fuels. They do not require the massive pressure vessel, and the technology and know-how is already available in India for fabricating the components. India has had considerable experience in manufacturing and operating these types of reactors with very high capacity utilisation and availability. The main drawback is the need for heavy water, but this can be produced indigenously.
The PHWRs have been discouraged by some Western countries, as they can be used to produce fissionable material for possible military use. However, this factor need not be a consideration. The Indian PHWR has been the mainstay of our power programme and should remain so in the future.
The expansion of India’s nuclear programme will require sufficient human resources with skills in nuclear technology, engineering, health physics, safety, security and regulatory matters. There is little evidence of any strategic plans to make an inventory of the personnel required for our nuclear programme and build up this capacity. As in any other area of high technology, skilled personnel are a valuable resource and take time to produce. Much more needs to be done to attract young students into a scientific career, such as nuclear science and engineering, and training courses and programmes offered by institutions need to be of high standard and quality. The training programmes run by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre need to be increased.
It is necessary to carefully consider all aspects — life-cycle costs, import dependency for components, instrumentation and fuel, availability of trained manpower for running plants, etc. Cost is only one factor in evaluating the relative merits of nuclear power projects. Only after a careful consideration should a decision be taken about going in for PWRs from abroad on a massive scale.
(The author is a former Ambassador of India and specialises in technology and international affairs.)