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Time for India to Export Nuclear Power Reactors and Peaceful Nuclear Technologies

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Dr. Ch. Viyyanna Sastry was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
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  • January 20, 2011

    India has been elevated to the sixth position among nations possessing 20 or more operating nuclear power reactors in the world when the Kaiga unit-4 attained criticality on November 27, 2010. The other five countries are the US, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea. With this, the total nuclear power generation in the country has gone up to 4780 MWe. The Kaiga-4 unit is yet another indigenously developed Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) of 220 MWe capacity, fuelled by domestically extracted uranium and reflects the growing confidence in the development of this class of reactors.

    Though India is currently producing only less than three per cent of its energy using nuclear means, it is poised to rapidly increase nuclear energy’s share in the total energy mix in coming years. As on date, two 1000 MWe light water reactors being supplied by Russia at Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu) along with the indigenous Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) of 500 MWe at Kalpakkam are nearing completion. The year 2010 also witnessed the start of construction of four indigenously designed 700-MWe PHWRs, two each at Kakrapar (Gujarat) and Rawatbhata (Rajasthan). Preliminary work has started at several places on the projects where foreign reactors would be set up. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) plans to increase nuclear power generation to 20,000 MWe or more by the year 2020 and 63,000 MWe by 2032.

    Despite the criticism based on proliferation and environmental concerns, it is clear that India, along with other Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea, is actively involved in the global resurgence of nuclear power that is being witnessed in the past few years. It may be noted that nuclear cooperation prominently figured during the visit of the P-5 Heads of State/Government to India in 2010.

    Despite these achievements, it is ironical that India, despite being the first Asian country to have initiated a nuclear power programme, has limited itself to domestic production, while others who had entered the field much later have long engaged in nuclear commerce with other countries. For example, the first Chinese nuclear power plant at Qinshan went into operation in 1989, and within two years China had agreed to supply Pakistan a similar 300 MWe nuclear plant at Chashma. Japan and South Korea too are actively involved in the export of nuclear reactors and other related infrastructure. India’s nuclear test of 1974 coupled with its principled stand against the discriminatory nuclear non-proliferation regime had severely constrained its progress as well as its chances to engage in nuclear commerce with the outside world.

    However, things have started to improve since 2005 when the George Bush Administration decided to conclude a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India, thus in effect ending the decades-old nuclear apartheid. India is now able to forge alliances with major nuclear suppliers to import nuclear reactors to sustain and increase the share of nuclear energy in its energy mix. The time has also come for India to think beyond domestic development of nuclear power reactors and showcase its civilian nuclear power capabilities abroad. Today, the world is witnessing a resurgence of nuclear power as a clean, cheap and reliable source of energy. According to the Director-General of the IAEA, the global nuclear expansion is centered in Asia. About 60 countries are considering the introduction of nuclear energy, and their number is steadily increasing. The IAEA expects that 10 to 25 countries among them would have operating nuclear power plants by 2030.

    The Indian Atomic Energy Department is also coming out in open with offers to export Indian expertise. Dr. S. Banerjee, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, in his remarks at the 54th session of the General Conference of the IAEA in September 2010, mentioned that the NPCIL is ready to offer Indian PHWRs of 220 MWe or 540 MWe capacity for export. Indian industry is not only poised to provide a bigger contribution to India’s own nuclear programme but is also on the way to becoming a competitive supplier in the global market with regard to special steels, large size forgings, control instruments, software, other nuclear components and services.1

    One major constraint in nuclear power development in the developing countries is the huge capital costs and smaller grids. It is known that no major money lending institution is keen to finance new nuclear power programmes for some inexplicable reasons. The IAEA has been calling on these institutions to judge nuclear power on its merits and not to categorically rule out financial help.

    The small and medium sized reactors of 220 MWe or 540 MWe, individually or in clusters, would be ideally suited for the new aspirants especially those with smaller grids. Indian reactors are also cost competitive and are based on proven technologies. India thus should advocate its achievements in the nuclear arena and approach the new nuclear energy aspiring States to offer its services. If necessary, India should not hesitate to consider offering soft loans to kick start their nuclear programmes.

    Besides a near-perfect operation of its nuclear plants over several years (322 reactor years of safe operation), India is self sufficient with regard to heavy water, zirconium alloy components and other related materials and supplies for PHWRs, besides fuel production, uranium exploration, etc. Supplying fuel to these reactors need not be an issue as several multilateral fuel supply mechanisms are being designed globally. On the non-power applications of nuclear energy like health care, agriculture and water-desalination and purification, India has made several strides. The donation of an indigenously developed Bhabhatron teletherapy unit to Vietnam in April 2010 under the IAEA’s Programme on Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT) is an illustration on this account. Another two units are in the pipeline for donation to two countries including Sri Lanka.

    Besides, India is also progressing in other nuclear sectors like medicine, agriculture, industry, etc. Development of hybrid Nuclear Desalination Demonstration Plant (NDDP) at Kalpakkam (capacity 6.3 million liters per day), notification of two new mutant lentil varieties for commercial cultivation in 2010, taking the total number of mutant crop varieties developed by BARC using nuclear techniques to 39; installation of Indian Real Time Online Decision Support (IRODOS) system at Narora Atomic Power Station, fully functional synchrotron radiation source at CAT, Indore; commissioning of India’s first industrial scale production facilities for enriched boron at Talcher and at Manuguru; are some recent developments. The Tata Memorial Centre at Mumbai which has a leading position in cancer treatment and research conducts several training programmes in collaboration with the IAEA - RCA for various countries in the Asia Pacific region. A national cancer grid is being set up by connecting several hospitals with the Tata Memorial Centre. In addition, about 30 webcasts on continuing medical education are relayed every year.

    Like in the space arena, India has the capability to offer its expertise in the nuclear power and non-nuclear applications as well. There is no reason why India cannot become one of the leading nuclear exporting countries in the coming decades.

    • 1. Statement by S Banerji at the 54th General Conference, Vienna, 22 September 2010; available at