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"Regain Momentum to Achieve Nuclear Power Targets"
"Indian capability for capacity addition is a lot more. We have unfortunately lost a lot of time and the need of the hour is to go past the hurdles and pick up speed. If the momentum is generated, then by 2032, we can even now add more than 30,000 MW of nuclear power," says Dr Anil Kakodkar, INAE Satish Dhawan Chair of Engineering Eminence, Member Atomic Energy Commission, BARC, in an exclusive interview with Mittravinda Ranjan while recounting the journey of nuclear power in India, the hurdles and roadmap India must follow to increase nuclear addition capacity to meet future energy demand.

How has the Indian nuclear power industry developed since the setting up of the first heavy water reactors? What kind of technology reforms has this sector experienced?
It was Dr Bhabha who pioneered the creation of the atomic energy programme and also helped shape it. He undertook a detailed evaluation of the long term energy requirements of the country and he concluded that thorium - which is available abundantly in India - is the answer to help meet long-term energy needs of the country. To produce nuclear energy the atom needs to be split, however Thorium by itself does not undergo fission but it can be converted to another species which can then undergo fission.

Dr Bhabha devised the three stage nuclear power programme for the country taking this basic fact into account. The only naturally available species that can undergo fission is Uranium-235 which is a very small fraction of natural Uranium; almost 7 parts in 1000. The first stage had thus to be of Uranium reactors and then he figured out that if the nuclear power capacity is to be expanded, a certain quantity of Uranium will be required. India has very modest Uranium reserves and to move from Uranium to Thorium, a multiplier is needed in between. Otherwise, you will start with uranium, and then set up a thorium reactor and the capacity will remain very small. The multiplier was figured out to be a fast breeder reactor as it produces more fissile fuel material than it consumes. Here, you begin with a certain quantity of fissile material and start a reactor, over a period of time; you will have more fissile material to set up more reactors. The fast breeder reactor is thus the second stage as it helps to increase the capacity. Once the capacity goes up significantly, then you introduce thorium to produce another fissile species and then you get access to copious energy production on the basis of our vast Thorium resources.

This strategy, in broad terms, is as valid today as it was at the time of its inception. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) began implementing this programme. He launched a study to decide about the most optimum uranium reactor that India should develop. Since the development takes time, in parallel, he decided to get a pair of uranium based reactors set up on a turnkey basis and that is how Tarapur I and II (constructed through American collaboration) came into being. The country started getting experience on commercial production of nuclear electricity. Through the study, it was concluded that Pressured Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) would best suit India and so we developed these reactors within the country.

Canada was also developing such rectors but they had not reached commercial maturity and hence it was a collaborative programme with them. This is around late 1950s and early 1960s. By the late 1960s, India had made sufficient progress and the heavy water reactor programme was in full swing. We built reactors at Rawatbhata - Rajasthan through Canadian collaboration and since we wanted to indigenise it, we made a large fraction of components within the country. Madras Atomic Power Station which came up next was truly indigenous. Later we felt that the design needs further improvement to make it more suitable for Indian conditions – particularly the seismic design. Therefore, a new design evolved at Narora and it was further refined, standardised and later the plant at Kakrapar came into being. After Kakrapar, we were ready with a good, robust 220 MW design and several reactors were constructed after that; 4 reactors at Kaiga and 4 more in Rajasthan. Later, we felt that 220 MW is too small a reactor and we wanted to add more capacity rapidly so we went ahead to set up 500 MW PHWRs and two such units were set up at Tarapur III and IV, which were indigenous. During this time, India demonstrated that Indian reactors are among the best performing reactors in the world. When people began asking questions about safety, we demonstrated that all safety measures were in place and was backed by large research content. Today, we are constructing a number of 700 MWe PHWR plants.

As of now, nuclear forms the minimum percentage of India’s energy basket. Even though we possess the capabilities, what prevents us from increasing the share of nuclear energy?
During embargo, the emphasis was on a technology development approach - you develop the reactor, improve the design and make it larger. The focus was to be self-reliant in technology and that has been eminently achieved. We demonstrated high performance in our reactor systems by showcasing their international level performance. This was however also the period when we began running out of fuel. We had uranium mine at Jaduguda and at a few other places but there were difficulties in opening new mines. We faced a lot of resistance. On one side, reactors started performing well but we experienced serious uranium supply constraints. We had added capacity with 22 - 23 reactors in pipeline whose operation and construction were underway, but the capacity factor of these reactors started dropping due to the shortage of uranium supply. Due to the problem of embargo, we could not purchase uranium from other countries.

We came up with three routes to tackle this problem; one was to enhance uranium availability by opening new mines taking care of public concerns. We set up additional mines at Thummalapalli despite technological difficulties that were faced. Today, we do produce significantly more uranium than before but it is still not at pace with the requirement of the nuclear sectors. Second track was to develop the reactors and fuel cycle for the 2nd stage of nuclear programme in a short span of time as they do not depend on mined uranium. Whatever plutonium is generated from the first stage can be used and multiplied in Fast Breeder Reactors. The construction of the 500 MWe prototype of the fast breeder reactor is nearing completion and is likely to be commissioned early next year. The third track was to start a dialogue for international nuclear cooperation, which started around 2002- 2003 and that went on for 3-4 years. With international cooperation, we have started getting uranium from Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia, France and other countries. With the uranium constraint taken care of, it was expected that nuclear electricity production should go up. We still face legal hurdles but I am hopeful that the problems would be overcome and the programme will pick up momentum.

Each sector is experiencing a dearth of good skill set for the future. Is there a similar problem among the engineers that come to join the nuclear industry?
A: That is not a very serious problem because human resource development area has received a lot of attention since the beginning. We have the BARC training school, established in 1956 and almost 90 per cent of the scientific human resource in the programme comes from the training school. I had myself joined the training school in 1963. We advertise admission to training school for scientists and engineers and all those found to be better than a particular standard are taken in. As we are a large department so vacancies are always available. In addition, at the lower level, we have category I and II training programme for technicians and diploma holders. Category I is for diploma holders and the other category is for ITI trained individuals. The 2 year programme is quite intensive where there is significant handson training along with regular course work but the focus is more on skills. There is no dearth of talent in the country and the idea is to spot them and train them in our training programme. There are many who choose other careers that may fetch better salaries. Our aim should be to create equally attractive opportunities in DAE.

India has chalked out major programmes to increase the nuclear capacity to 20,000MWe by the year 2020. What is the other kind of supporting infrastructure that is required to integrate it with power grids for distribution?
As far as evacuation of power from nuclear power station is concerned, the issue is the same as it is for thermal or hydro plant. Investment could pose a constraint. However any activity which is commercially attractive, investment is bound to flow in. In the case of nuclear power plants, adequate returns can be generated making it a profitable proposition. Greater speed in implementation will make it more attractive. Constraint is not so much in power evacuation but in supply chain. Depending on the reactor type, various inputs are required – heavy water reactors require heavy water, fast reactors require sodium. Several other specialty materials are also required. Technology has been developed in-house and adequate capacity exists at present to feed the reactors but when the programme becomes larger, the capacities will need to be expanded. In parallel with setting up new power stations, you need to expand capacity so as to keep up with the demand of expanding projects. For production of equipment made of speciality steel, you require quality raw materials. Similarly you require capacity for fabrication of equipment, construction at project sites, manufacture of electronics and control equipment as well as for several services like quality assurance, non-destructive evaluation etc. The gestation period for setting up capacity for all this is shorter than that for setting up a power plant. Though all these can be easily achieved, they must be a part of a credible plan. There must be confidence in making investments for this purpose.

As far as nuclear power plants are concerned, are all the components and equipment procured from India or are we dependent on other countries for resources?
The PHWR and FBR plants which are already designed and developed in the country are indigenous. There are few areas where the requirement is small. If the total turnover on that particular product is small, it does not make sense to invest in its domestic production as long as it is a freeflowing item in international commerce. If it is not a freely available item in international market, then we have to develop it in the country. These issues do arise but we do possess the capacity to address it.

Please shade some light on the role of private sector in India and overseas in nuclear power sector.
Even in India, private companies do play a big role. For nuclear business or any other energy business, there are two segments. One is the utility business - setting up the power station, operating and running it. Second is the supply chain business – manufacture and supply of equipment, construction of power plants on a contract; both private and public sector companies are already participating in the later . The ownership of a nuclear utility however, has to be with a government company, as prescribed by the act. Today the Indian industry is participating in our nuclear programme in a big way. At the same time, there are a few technologies that are sensitive and which have to be controlled by the Government. There are certain restrictions driven primarily by security considerations so as to prevent sensitive nuclear technology from falling in the wrong hands. The private sector has been working within these boundaries and has been contributing to the Indian nuclear sector. The utility business, as mandated by the act, has to be within the ambit of a government company. As part of our national policy, management of spent fuel arising from a nuclear power plant involves reprocessing and recycle of plutonium and other useful components as well as disposal of high level radioactive waste. Several sensitive issues including ownership, control and security of sensitive nuclear materials as well as technology are involved. Further once a nuclear power plant is started, the safety systems must be always available and running regardless of whether the plant is producing energy or not. You require a management culture, committed to safety, notwithstanding the profitability. Of course, abroad there are private companies who also run the nuclear power plant utility but it requires a lot of preparation in terms of management culture, legal framework and going through a learning curve.

A Government company does not mean 100 per cent ownership by the government; rather majority control must rest with the Government. Noting prevents a private sector company to participate as a minority partner. This, in my opinion, is a good way to make a beginning. Theoretically, private companies can invest in nuclear power in collaboration with the government. However, it may take a while for this to be a reality.

What are the kinds of returns on investments that are likely to exist for the private sector?
As long as economy is growing, the demand for electricity will keep rising. In electricity production business, you have by and large an assured market. The tariff is decided taking a set profit element into account. Thus as long as the plant performance remains excellent, return on investment in case of nuclear power plant would be similar to any other electricity generation mode.

What are the key factors for being competitive, as far as cost of production is concerned?
Unit energy cost of a nuclear power plant has all along been competitive with other electricity generation options. That is the basis of a decision to go ahead with setting up of a nuclear power plant. The larger part of electricity market in India is dominated and would continue to be dominated by coal. So usually the base price and the cost of production are compared with a coal power plant. While the fixed cost of coal power plant is quite low, the coal price is an issue and the variable cost is significant. With higher proportion of variable cost, the unit energy cost in case of a coal power plant rises significantly with coal price escalation. In nuclear power plant, fixed cost is high, but the variable cost is is low in proportionate terms. This means that unit energy cost in a nuclear power plant is not so sensitive to price escalation as in a coal plant. So if I am to set up a coal and nuclear power plant, with similar cost of electricity production; over a period of time, in relative terms, the cost of production from thermal plant would go up because the price of coal escalates. Price of uranium also escalates but in power plant costing, it occupies a smaller share so the relative advantage of nuclear power plant keeps increasing. This is the reason why Tarapur I and II produce very cheap electricity. In their case the fixed cost is paid off and variable cost is low.

Nuclear generation perception is negative and countries are moving more towards renewables. Will you please comment on this?
The Fukushima incident was very unfortunate. The tragedy was triggered by tsunami. The tsunami killed about 14000 people and a larger number went missing. Compared to that, in the Fukushima tragedy, no casualty was reported attributable to the reactor accident. The reactor got damaged due to the tsunami waves and a lot of concern was generated regarding radiation and a large number of people were relocated. So it was a disaster in that sense. Japan, as a country, has previously suffered attack by nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear power however played a very important role in Japan. At the time of Fukushima accident almost a third of electricity produced in Japan was nuclear. Japan has not given up on nuclear even after the recent Fukushima tragedy. They shut down the reactors, conducted a thorough review and are in the process of restarting some of the reactors. In contrast, Germany had taken a policy a long time ago that they would phase out nuclear energy and their parliament passed a bill to that effect. However, when the date came, they thought over it and were about to restart a few reactors but Fukushima happened and then they decided to not start them. They have also decided to phase out the current operational reactors in the near future. The positive outcome of this is that renewables are receiving a huge thrust which is beneficial as we will eventually get an extra source of viable energy. France has announced that the share of nuclear energy will be reduced. It, however, does not mean that they will shut down the reactors. It means that a few of the reactors will be dedicated to produce hydrogen and using it in combination with biomass, they will produce fluid hydrocarbon of non-fossil origin. They aim to run their transportation system non-fossil fluid hydrocarbon so produced.

Germany’s per capita energy use is quite large with no incentive for its growth and so in totality, their energy requirement is not going to increase with time; it will remain stable mainly because population is not growing. In India, this is not valid as our population is high, population is growing, and current per capita use is low which will increase in the future. Our energy needs are growing, which means that we need to find additional energy resources. Energy security issue in Japan is much more critical than other advanced countries. They source most of their energy from abroad. They also procure uranium from other countries, but being a source with very high energy content, nuclear energy is crucially important from energy security perspective. In spite of Fukushima, Japan is thus continuing with nuclear energy. Thus, each country has to make their own choice, based on their needs

Disposal of radioactive waste is a valid concern that is prevalent among the people. How is it managed?
Disposal has to be managed properly but is not a big issue in Indian context. Globally there are two approaches; one is disposal of spent fuel as spent fuel. Some countries have adopted this approach following a fear of diversion of plutonium which could cause serious security concerns. Direct disposal of spent fuel has however remained an unresolved issue and is likely to remain so.

On the other hand the Indian policy as also the policy of some other countries like France, Russia, Japan etc, is that the spent fuel has to be reprocessed, uranium, plutonium and other useful components to be separated and recycled and other fission products to be disposed of. This means that the quantity of material to be disposed of as waste is very small - only a few per cent as everything else is recycled. It is in countries like the US which have adopted a ‘once through use’ policy that there is a concern on final disposal of spent fuel. It is always safer to recycle and therefore, for India, disposal is not a problem as it is for some other countries. India has industrial scale technology which is in practise for decades and has been safely and successfully disposing nuclear waste.

Can a nuclear plant be a supplier of nuclear energy to other countries?
There are countries, including Germany, who have taken an anti-nuclear stance, which import a lot of electricity from other countries and a good part of it is nuclear energy. For example, in Europe depending on the access, time of the day, surplus or shortages; electricity is regularly traded across international borders. A good part of this is nuclear.

What are the various gaps that need to be addressed in order to realise the dream of 3rdstage of nuclear power production?
At this moment, we need to hasten implementation of 1st and 2nd stage nuclear power plants. We need to sort out issues related to the liability act. Having taken care of the liability act, second important aspect is to take up new projects in programme (convoy construction) mode. There is capacity under construction. Indian capability for capacity addition is a lot more.

There have been times when people were working on six sites simultaneously. So if you are working on more sites and working on unit sizes of the order of 700 MW to 1000 MW or larger, then after about six to seven years, we should be able to add around 6000-7000 MW every year. If such a momentum is generated, then by 2032, we should be able to add more than 30,000 MW even now.

We have unfortunately lost a lot of time and the need of the hour is to regain the momentum, go past the hurdles and pick up speed.