India’s Ambitious Nuclear Power Plan – And What’s Getting in Its Way

As India embarked on its commercial nuclear power production in 1969, its nuclear power program was conceived to be a closed fuel cycle, to be achieved in three sequential stages. These stages feed into each other in such a way that the spent fuel generated from one stage of the cycle is reprocessed and used in the next stage of the cycle to produce power. This kind of a closed fuel cycle was designed to breed fuel and to minimize generation of nuclear waste. The stage at which India is currently at in its nuclear power production cycle will be a major determinant of the future of nuclear power in India.

The three-stage nuclear power production program in India had been conceived with the ultimate objective of utilizing the country’s vast reserves of thorium-232. It is important to note that India has the world’s third largest reserves of thorium. Thorium, however, cannot be used as a fuel in its natural state. It needs to be converted into its usable “fissile” form after a series of reactions. To aid this and to eventually produce nuclear power from its thorium reserves, Indian scientist Dr. Homi J. Bhabha drew the road map of the three-stage nuclear program.

In the first stage, Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) will be used to produce energy from natural uranium. PHWRs do not just produce energy; they also produce fissile plutonium (Pu)-239. The second stage involves using the indigenous Fast Breeder Reactor technology fueled by Pu-239 to produce energy and more of Pu-239. By the end of the second stage of the cycle the reactor would have produced more fissile material than it would have consumed, thus earning the name “Breeder.” The final stage of the cycle would involve the use of Pu-239 recovered from the second stage, in combination with thorium-232, to produce energy and U-233 — another fissile material — using Thermal Breeders. This production of U-233 from thorium-232 would complete the cycle. U-233 would then be used as fuel for the remaining part of the fuel cycle.

As of now, India produces about 6.7 GW power from nuclear fuel from its 22 nuclear power plants, effectively contributing 1.8 percent to the total energy mix. This is way lower than the vision of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which hoped to produce at least 20 GW of nuclear power by 2020, and at least 48 GW by 2030. While India has successfully completed the first stage of its nuclear fuel program, the second stage is still in the works and has taken much longer than expected. The first 500 MW Pressurized Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) BHAVINI, being set up in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, is still in the process of being commissioned and has suffered from significant time and cost overruns. It is expected to be ready by 2022-23, with an estimated total cost of a whopping 96 billion Indian rupees.

The government of India, after a long pause, in its budgetary announcements of 2017-18 provided for the construction of 10 units of 700 MW indigenous PHWRs. Of these, the Kakarapar Atomic Power Project being developed in Gujarat became the first one to achieve criticality. The Indian government has announced that seven more reactors with a cumulative capacity of 5,500 MW are under construction. It has also cleared the paperwork for 12 more reactors with a cumulative capacity of 9,000 MW.

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While these are significant initiatives, the future of nuclear energy in India looks less promising than it did about a decade ago. With the signing of the India-U.S. nuclear deal in 2008 and other important agreements with France and Japan, India’s nuclear energy sector looked set for a promising overhaul. However, post- 2011, there has been an evident slowdown in the country’s nuclear energy sector.

The observed slowdown and the below par level of contribution of nuclear energy to India’s total energy mix can be attributed to a slew of factors. A primary reason has been the delays in rolling out the second stage of the nuclear fuel program. Technological problems arising in the process of commissioning the PFBR and the associated time and cost overruns have contributed significantly to the delay. Other factors involve the critical disruptions that renewable energy technologies have caused in the global energy systems. With the commercialization and enhanced use of renewable energy technologies, the per unit cost of electricity produced from renewables has gone down significantly. The cost of solar power in India right now is Rs 2.62 per unit, almost half of the per unit cost of electricity being produced by the recently operational Kudankulam nuclear power plant (Rs 4.10 per unit).

Additionally, the nuclear power sector in India has witnessed its share of controversies and protests over issues of land ownership, location, as well as the safety and security of power plants in the event of natural or man-made disasters. These have also contributed to the time and cost overruns of India’s nuclear power projects. Another very important contributing factor to the state of nuclear energy in India has been the global retrenchment in the sector following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. That event led to a situation where countries rolled back significantly on their nuclear power programs and global nuclear majors like Areva and Westinghouse declared bankruptcy.

Given, however, rising energy demand in the country, and India’s huge dependency on import of not just oil and gas, but also critical raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel used for the production of solar panels and other renewable technologies, indigenously developed nuclear power plants that are fueled by domestically available thorium reserves remain an important pillar of India’s energy independence. This would, however, require the Indian government to push forth with its nuclear power program by investing in cost-effective technologies, cutting down red tape in processing approvals, streamlining land reforms, and creating special purpose vehicles for the development of nuclear power plants. A competitive domestic nuclear energy sector is key to India’s energy security. It must be developed keeping in mind India’s limited options when it comes to other forms of energy resources and technologies.

Niharika Tagotra is a nuclear physicist and currently Doctoral Candidate in International Politics at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.