India is in talks with large domestic companies to invest in the regulated nuclear sector, including promoting clean power.

The Atomic Energy Act, 1962, restricts private ownership of nuclear plants. The central government holds the power to produce, develop, use and dispose of ‘atomic energy’. After legislative amendments, such powers can be exercised through any authority/corporation established by the government in which the former holds at least 51 per cent of the paid-up share capital. 

The amended Atomic Energy Act also allows the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) to form joint ventures with other public sector units to secure funding for new projects. This does not extend to private or foreign companies. However, private companies may participate in certain related activities, including supply of components and reactors. 

They may contribute via financing, project development and equipment supply. Further, they may secure a return on investment through the sale of electricity generated by such plants, while NPCIL may retain a fee for operating and maintaining facilities. 

As India’s aim to bolster nuclear capacity appears to be driven by clean energy goals, the hydrogen economy has gathered strong political patronage — especially with respect to ‘green’ hydrogen, which is made using renewable energy to electrolyse water while emitting zero carbon dioxide. 

However, nuclear power can also enable large-scale hydrogen production without emitting greenhouse gases, making it a promising alternative — including as a transition fuel — to steam-methane reforming, which has a large carbon footprint. 

Similar to green, ‘pink’ hydrogen is also generated through electrolysis but powered by nuclear energy. Recent studies claim that pink hydrogen facilities can achieve a high capacity factor due to the steady baseload profile of nuclear power (involving both stability and density), relative to the intermittent supply from renewable sources. Accordingly, a pink plant may produce far more hydrogen than a green facility, even though it’s expensive. 

High temperatures from nuclear reactors may also be used in other industrial processes. Specifically, heat generated through fission (by splitting uranium atoms) can make steam for spinning turbines to produce electricity. Ultimately, significant investments will be necessary to develop better technologies at scale. 

Amending the Atomic Energy Act to facilitate private investments is an idea whose time has come.

Future collaborations could focus on research, technology transfer, and scaling up hydrogen projects — whether green or pink. After all, India’s net-zero transition will require multiple pathways — including nuclear power and renewable energy.

(The writer is a lawyer with S&R Associates, a law firm)