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Home > India > News > Columnists > L V Krishnan

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How the nuclear deal helps India's power situation

October 03, 2008

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The Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement has gone through a gestation period much longer than a gajagarbh. The abortionists mounted a serious effort but were unsuccessful. To continue with the analogy, the US as the midwife has managed to get the NSG to agree to a waiver for India, equivalent perhaps to bringing the baby's head out, but its full emergence happened only when the US Congress approved the agreement on Wednesday.

There is some talk of ordering reactors from other interested countries and refraining from implementing the agreement with the US if the terms turn out to be different from what we were given to understand.

If even that were to be thwarted, we would be back to square one and carry on in the autarkic mode as before. There will be progress but at a slow rate.

It is useful, however, to examine whether and how the country could benefit if civilian nuclear cooperation with all countries does become a reality.

One hears voices on both sides of the divide, for and against reliance on weapons. There is no sign that either side has found unlimited support in any of the governments we have had so far, all of whom have taken a middle path.

India has been a reluctant nuclear power as someone once said and probably would continue to be so. It took 10 years from 1964, when Dr Homi J Bhabha first suggested nuclear weapons as a hedge against the more powerful nuclear China, to the demonstration of a nuclear device through a test in 1974.

This was not followed up by efforts towards weaponisation for a long time.

Another 24 years elapsed before a test of what was described as a weaponised version of the device. The slow progress was not out of lack of technical competence but reluctance on the part of the political leaders.

They have, however, resisted signing the NPT and CTBT, instead issuing statements of a voluntary moratorium.

Does the separation plan lead to a cap on the deterrence capability, as some have argued? Considering the number of reactors that are now excluded from safeguards and their potential for fissile material production, the answer is a clear no. But, production has to cease some day when the desired limit is reached. If the limit is modest, that day would perhaps be not too far off.

There is no likelihood of the voluntary moratorium of 1998 on weapon testing being broken in the near future, as the country is not ready to face the repercussions now. It may never have to be broken. New designs would not seem quite necessary, considering that even a single 15 KT weapon would be capable of devastation of the unfortunate target.

Cities of today have become much denser and would seem to contain more inflammable material than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Multiple warheads on a single missile would have the same effect as a high yield weapon. Should the CTBT be ratified by the US one day, any talk of a nuclear test would be out of question as it would completely isolate India with or without the deal, and that isolation is best avoided.

Attention must be focused on constructive aspects related to energy needs, which go beyond the limits of indigenous coal, hydel, solar and other renewable resources. We cannot afford the luxury of discarding the nuclear energy option, certainly not if the rest of the world finds it inevitable.

Any benefit to security is intangible, while that arising from power generation is very visible. But, how does the deal help in improving the power situation? In at least three ways.

First, it makes it possible to procure uranium from the world market. But, according to the separation plan indicated by the PM in Parliament, only four reactors with a total capacity of 740 MW out of a total of 4,120 MW come under safeguards this year. Any natural uranium that we buy right now, if we can, would help fuel only these. The relief that would bring for the other operating reactors would be quite small.

More reactors would be placed under safeguards in 2010, 2012 and 2014, taking the total in this category to 2060 MW with an annual fuel requirement of about 330 tonnes, which could be met by imports. No significant improvement in power generation from imported uranium can be expected for the next few years. Thereafter, annual import of uranium could rise to 1200 tonnes when the total capacity of the safeguarded heavy water reactors reaches 7,660 MW, so as to maximise electricity output.

Very little of it is likely to come from the US because the US itself relies on imports to meet over 75 per cent of its needs.

Second, building several light water reactors with outside help could lead to a rapid rise in the share of nuclear electricity. Needless to say, all of these would be under safeguards. The rise would be limited primarily by the size of the investment the country can make given the prevailing capital cost of the reactors -- which seems to range between Rs 9 crore and Rs 13 crores per megawatt -- and the number of teams that could be deployed to build them. To expect around 30 new reactors by 2020 does not seem unrealistic if capital is available. Rather than rush to place orders, it would be wise to negotiate with the different interested suppliers to bring the prices within an affordable range. The Chinese have set a good precedent here.

Third, new plants are needed for recovery of plutonium in the spent fuel from the heavy water reactors to launch a sizable fast breeder programme. Some thought should be given to establishing quickly a large national reprocessing facility under safeguards. Procurement of some equipment, components and instruments from foreign suppliers might hasten the process. The prototype fast breeder reactor now under construction seems to be making good progress. But, it is not under safeguards. Future breeders could be built in a shorter time, if they were to be placed under safeguards.

Currently, few other countries have interests similar to that of India. Most are not too keen to reprocess spent fuel, being content to store it away, though this is likely to change some time in the future. They do not also have plans for an early fast breeder programme as India does, being more keen to burn plutonium than breed. Nor do they have a thorium programme. If we pursue our interests unmindful of what others may do, there could come a time when they choose a similar path and follow us.

Investment on a national enrichment facility to support imported light water reactors needs careful consideration. It may not seem necessary as long as lifetime fuel supply is assured. Such a facility would still depend on uranium supply from external sources, and therefore subject to disruption in operation in the event of a supply cut off.

Between 1990 and 2007, power generation in the country through use of coal rose by about 75 per cent, from 40,000 MW to 70,000 MW. Assume for a moment that over the next 23 years it trebles to reach 210,000 MW -- that is, coal output increases by over threefold to 1,200 million tones. This is far less than what some think is needed to support continued 8 per cent GDP growth but still no mean achievement, if it happens.

According to a study by the Centre for the Study of Science, Technology and Policy based in Bangalore, there is a good chance of nuclear power contributing about 57,000 MW by 2030 through LWRs and FBRs. By building more PHWRs too -- with totally indigenous technology, but run on imported uranium fuel -- the level could touch 70,000 MW or higher.

In effect, the nuclear share could jump in about two decades from six per cent as of now to anywhere between 20 pc and 30 pc of the contribution from coal. That is the growth potential that seems within reach now. But that can be realised only if there is no adverse political implication of the nuclear deal.

Nuclear scientist L V Krishnan has served as director of the Safety Research and Health Physics Group at Kalpakkam. He has co-authored with C V Sundaram and T S Iyengar the book titled Atomic Energy in India -- Fifty Years. He has also co-authored the book Elements of Nuclear Power with Raja Ramanna

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