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'Nuclear Has To Get Into Achche Din'

May 20, 2024 09:58 IST

'Chinese are going bang, bang, bang building 30-35 reactors.'
'We should announce a programme of 50 new reactors and show that we mean business on the ground and not just announcements.'

IMAGE: Rajasthan Atomic Power Station. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

Dr Anil Kakodkar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, played a key role in India concluding a civilian nuclear agreement with the United States.

"India is a large enough country and nuclear power makes business sense. If you invest in nuclear, it will pay back," Dr Kakodkar tells Shivanand Kanavi in the concluding part of an exclusive interview.

What is a high-temperature nuclear reactor?

Well, it can go easily beyond 1,000 degrees Celsius. You can get super-heated steam.

You can get high-temperature helium and run a gas power conversion cycle.

You can have a system where the molten sodium or potassium salt as the heat transfer medium. There are many variations of that. The Chinese HTR is a helium-cooled system.

IMAGE: Dr Anil Kakodkar with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then prime minister of India. Photograph: Kind courtesy

What is the reason for over a decade-long delay in our Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam? Are we rethinking design?

No, they are not rethinking design, but they are testing all systems carefully since we are using liquid metallic sodium for heat transfer.

When they were commissioning the equipment they found a lot of issues that had to be fixed in components and subsystems. Fixing that took nearly a decade. But now it's all checked out and should go operational in a few months and that will be a landmark in our nuclear programme!

Who else has been successful in developing Fast Breeder Reactor technology?

The Russians are running a 600 MW and an 800 MW reactor. Fast Breeder Reactors are Gen4, but the French and Japanese have stopped working on it. The British and Americans are also not pursuing it. But the Chinese are certainly interested in Fast Breeder Reactors.

IMAGE: Dr Kakodkar with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Pune. Photograph: Kind courtesy

Are the Russians sharing experience and data or anything like that with us?

There is an international working group on Fast Breeder Reactors and India is a member there.

To some extent they are sharing information and that exchange is valuable. They don't tell everything, but it is useful.

IMAGE: Dr Kakodkar with Dr A P J Abdul Kalam. Photograph: Kind courtesy

The Chinese are also building a lot of reactors.

Yes. They are going bang, bang, bang. Building 30-35.

It's good that we have now 10 under construction in the fleet mode and all that. But our government should pick up an additional 50 reactors for construction.

Create more companies in nuclear manufacturing, construction, operation, etc. If India wants to be a developed country. In the sense that the quality of life of Indians should become comparable to a developed country's human development index etc, then our per capita energy has to rise steeply before becoming flat.

Now we are way below the global average in energy consumption. Moreover, now you have to grow with clean energy. Among the clean energy sources, nuclear is the only one which can supply base load 24X7.

Renewable doesn't provide 24x7 base load.

I would say if you build nuclear in hundreds of gigawatts scale, even then you will have to depend on fossil fuel to some extent.

So we need to add carbon capture sequestration to that fossil part. Otherwise, how do you satisfy net zero? And that is going to be very expensive so I am convinced this country has no alternative.

So one should never follow a single track. It doesn't work. You must have a diverse basket.

Whether one likes it or not, nuclear has to get into achche din. I don't see any escape from it.

IMAGE: Dr Anil Kakodkar with Sharad Pawar. Photograph: Kind courtesy

What is stopping us?

Finance is certainly one of the problems, but I think the bigger problem is programme delivery.

The point is you can't be sitting and saying DAE you do this, you are not doing anything.

See, for example, how much of policy support is there for renewable energy? Where is that policy support for nuclear? These are all important things. There is a long gestation period. Interest on capital matters.

We need not wait for climate funds etc to do something within our country.

India is a large enough country and nuclear power makes business sense. If you invest in nuclear, it will pay back.

First of all, Indian politicians have not understood the criticality of nuclear. Secondly, they are completely in the dark as to what should be done.

For example, to construct a nuclear plant it takes a minimum 5 years. Sometimes it takes longer.

Now, with the kind of interest rates that are prevalent. If you start with a 100 crore project, there is an S curve for spending.

So, let us say a 100 crore project takes 5 years, let's say it gets delayed for another 5 years or 10 years. Then the 100 crores plus interest will ultimately reflect in electricity tariff.

Why it gets delayed is the first problem to attack, but secondly, you should have finance, which is a soft loan over long period.

For our bullet trains, the Japanese give zero-interest loans. You need such instruments. No external agency will fund nuclear.

IMAGE: The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Photograph: Kind courtesy Reetesh Chaurasia/Wikimedia Commons

Is the nuclear industry capacity OK?

Industry capacity is not a problem. Of course, you would need more vendors for an ambitious programme, but if they see a market then they can build up capacity with a time lag of one-and-a-half years to 2 years.

Industry needs to be sure that these orders are coming. I don't think there is a problem.

We should announce a programme of 50 new reactors and show that we mean business on the ground and not just announcements.

It's do-able. But whether it will happen or not, I don't know.

IMAGE: The Tarapur Atomic Power Station. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

We have built two nuclear-powered submarines, so why not a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier?

Compared to nuclear submarines, building a reactor powering an aircraft carrier is not a big deal. But I'm sure there must be a debate whether we need more aircraft carriers.

For example, if you had asked this question 20 years ago, the answer was very emphatic, yes. Now the answer may be ambiguous.

The point is whether India has regional ambitions or global ambitions.

If you want to control only the sea around the Indian coast, then you will get one answer.

If you say I should have a presence in the South China Sea and I should have a presence in the Atlantic and things like that, then you need floating platforms of large size.

So it all depends on the overall strategic goal. You having an aircraft carrier 200 kilometres outside Mumbai doesn't make sense, you can already do everything from Mumbai.

IMAGE: The Madras Atomic Power Plant, Kalpakkam. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

What do you think about the future of transportation and mobility?

According to me you would start seeing heavy vehicles running on hydrogen, they will compete with diesel.

It may be a matter of just a couple of years or so.

You will start seeing that because battery-electric vehicles for cross-country traffic and heavy vehicles is not viable.

Of course, there is also talk about IC engines running on hydrogen. And that's also quite promising.

Did you see Oppenheimer?



Just like that. Read a lot about it. But didn't go to watch it.

Shivanand Kanavi is a former VP at Tata Consultancy Services and the former executive editor of Business India. The award-winning author of Sand To Silicon: The Amazing Story Of Digital Technology, he is also adjunct faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru and frequently contributes to

Photographs curated by Manisha Kotian/
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/