India’s nuclear energy expansion programme turned ambitious over the past ten years. 

During this time, it took significant strides towards needs-based expansion of its clean energy basket, focusing on energy security, reliability and sustainable development.

As a relatively clean source of stable energy, nuclear power emerged as a potential option, especially given the advances in the development of Small Modular Reactors (SMR) and Advanced Small Modular Reactors (ASMR) alongside a favourable international environment.

In September 2023, 22 countries called for “unprecedented collaboration between government and industry leaders to at least triple global nuclear capacity by 2050”. 

Then in December 2023, this was officially endorsed at COP28 held in Dubai, while recognising the “critical role of nuclear energy for reducing the effects of climate change”. 

A nuclear renaissance is thus on the horizon.

India also enjoys a degree of competitive and comparative advantage on the nuclear energy front since the Department of Atomic Energy (DoAE) has been working on a three-stage development strategy for over 60 years, which has led to significant advances in technology and human resource development. 

The nuclear power programme is largely indigenous and it aims to utilise India’s vast thorium reserves, estimated at 1.07 MT, to achieve energy independence.

But the road now and in the future remains bumpy. 

In the past, a number of challenges – technological, geopolitical, financing and policy-related –deterred energy planners from proceeding with nuclear projects. 

For instance, the construction of a prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, scheduled for completion in September 2010, was delayed by over 14 years, resulting in the cost doubling.

At the same time, safety concerns arising out of nuclear plant-related disasters, such as the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima accidents, also lurk in the periphery.

Add to this the concerns expressed two years ago about the safety of the  Zaporizhia nuclear plant in Ukraine.

Of greater concern has been India’s institutional framework for its civil nuclear energy sector. The “deadlocks precipitated” by the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (CLNDA) passed into law almost 14 years ago contributed significantly in deferring the realisation of objectives such as sourcing about “40GW of capacity from international suppliers” and the slow progress in fulfilling the goals set out by the 2005 India-US nuclear deal.

A specific provision of the act – stipulating supplier liability obligations – discouraged domestic companies from supplying components for nuclear power plants.

International suppliers too were wary of this provision, causing uncertainty over the future of the Indian civil nuclear power programme.

Subsequently, however, the DoAE’s clarifications did assuage domestic industry concerns, but the liability clause continues to remain a sticking point for foreign suppliers, including the French company Electicite de France which had bid for construction of six nuclear power reactors at Jaitapur in Maharashtra in 2021.

American companies too have been cautious and hesitant. Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which supplies high-output nuclear power plants, has been apprehensive about sales to India because of the “absence of a durable assurance on limited liability in the event of an accident”. 

Talks with Westinghouse for building six AP1000 reactors in Andhra Pradesh ground to a halt some time ago, preventing the US and India from realising the “commercial promise” of the civil nuclear deal.

Geopolitical challenges also loom large.  This is linked to India not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has led to apprehensions on the part of some countries about potential weapons proliferation. 

Additionally, India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which regulates global nuclear commerce, is seen as a challenge to the country’s full integration into the global nuclear market. Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges, the future holds many promises and opportunities.

In March, India achieved a historic landmark in its nuclear energy development with the successful core loading of the country’s first indigenous 500 MWe Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. In February 2024, two new indigenously built 700 MW reactors were commissioned at Kakrapar in Gujarat, boosting domestic generation capacity

The Kerala government recently proposed exploring the possibility of tapping the rich thorium deposits in the state.

The Nuclear Power Corporation (NPCIL) is planning to commission a new reactor every year. 

To augment finances, the central government is planning to tap the private sector to invest around $USD$26 billion in nuclear energy. 

The Water-Water Energetic Reactor (VVER) 1200 developed by Russia promises 20 percent higher power output, a 60-year lifespan, high-capacity utilisation (90 percent), an 18-month refuelling cycle and capable of producing 9.1 trillion kWh per year.

However, this could be achieved if the DoAE fast-tracks utilising its thorium deposits and developing SMRs and ASMRs, which would address many of the concerns related to technical, safety and cost aspects.  The Nuclear Harmonization Initiative of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could help in this regard.

About a year ago, the US NuScale Power Corporation received a crucial design certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for its SMR design. This could pave the way for potential future deployments of these smaller, more flexible reactors.

Equally important is the moulding of public perception on the importance of nuclear energy as a clean, secure and safe energy source. Resolving issues related to liability and insurance is therefore essential for attracting international partners and investment.

A global partnership for managing the risks of reactors and proliferation also appears desirable in this context. Similarly, a dialogue between nuclear and non-nuclear states can help build mutual trust and reduce tensions. 

A comprehensive set of institutional reforms, a robust civil nuclear programme with sufficient checks and balances and continued thrust on engineering and research and development could hasten India’s nuclear renaissance.

K Ramanathan is a Distinguished Fellow at TERI. Formerly a member on the Central Electricity Authority, Ramanathan provided consultancy support through TERI on numerous technical issues related to power sector development. He is also a member on the State Advisory Committee of Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (DERC) and serves as Adjunct Faculty with the TERI School of Advanced Studies. The views expressed here are personal. 

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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