How the Narendra Modi govt is systematically paving the way for a nuclear-powered India

The generation of nuclear power in India got a big boost on Wednesday with the Union Cabinet's decision to construct 10 indigenous pressurised heavy water nuclear reactors, with a total capacity of 7,000-megawatt electric (MWe).

Of course, most of the sites for these reactors had already been chosen way back in 2012 and preliminary work had already commenced – Gorakhpur near Fatehabad district in Haryana, Banswada in Rajasthan, Chutka in Mandla district and at Bheempur in Madhya Pradesh. The latest decision has now added Kaiga in Karnataka to the list.

Wednesday’s decision underscores the Narendra Modi government’s commitment towards promoting nonconventional (non-fossil) energy resources such as nuclear, solar and wind power.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

At present, India generates 37,674 million units of energy from its existing nuclear plants (in 2016-17), but this figure only reflects about 80 percent of the country’s capacity factor. India’s target is to have 14.5 gigawatt electrical (GWe) nuclear capacity on line by 2020 as part of its national energy policy, which aims at supplying 25 percent of the total electricity requirement from nuclear power by 2050.

According to a World Nuclear Association (WNA) study, as of today, nuclear power provides over 11 percent of the world's electricity as continuous, reliable base-load power, without carbon dioxide emissions. As of April 2017, 30 countries worldwide are operating 449 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 60 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries.

And there are 55 countries that operate a total of about 245 research reactors and a further 180 nuclear reactors power some 140 ships and submarines. Sixteen countries depend on nuclear power for at least a quarter of their electricity. France gets around three-quarters of its power from nuclear energy, while Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia and Ukraine get one-third or more.

South Korea, Bulgaria and Finland normally get more than 30 percent of their power from nuclear energy, while in the USA, UK, Spain and Russia get almost one-fifth of their power from nuclear. Japan is used to relying on nuclear power for more than one-quarter of its electricity and is expected to return to that level. Though in some developed countries, there have been demands to revisit the nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 in Japan.

Over 50 countries, both developed and developing, are actively considering embarking upon nuclear power programmes. The Chinese government plans to increase nuclear-generating capacity to 58 GWe with 30 GWe more to be added by 2020. China has completed construction and commenced operation of 17 new nuclear power reactors in between 2003 and 2013 and many have been planned since then. In fact, China is now commencing export marketing of a largely indigenous reactor design – R&D on nuclear reactor technology in China is second to none.

Russia plans to increase its nuclear capacity to 30.5 GWe by 2020, using its world-class light water reactors. Construction of a large fast breeder unit is nearly complete, and development proceeds on others, aiming for significant exports. An initial floating power plant is under construction, with delivery due in 2016.

Russia is active in building and financing new nuclear power plants in several countries. Finland and France are both expanding their fleets of nuclear power plants with the 1,650 MWe EPR from Areva, two of which are also being built in China.

A UK government energy paper in mid-2006 endorsed the replacement of the country’s ageing fleet of nuclear reactors with new nuclear build, and four 1,600 MWe French units are planned for operation by 2023. And now, London aims at having 16 GWe of new nuclear capacity operating by 2030.

Against this background, it is but natural that India, a poor fuel resource country, should find nuclear power attractive. However, there have been some bottlenecks on the way.

First, there have been strong forces, many of them being assisted by leading western anti-nuclear and “green” lobbies, who have delayed the commissioning of nuclear plants in India by resorting to mass agitations and legal recourses on some pretext or the other (mainly centring on environmental and settlement issues). Some political parties have also exploited the situation.

Secondly, there has been the security factor, which the critics of the nuclear power cite to be the most important reason as to why the programme should not be promoted. But the fact remains that with each passing day, nuclear power is becoming safer and safer – thanks to the tremendous advances made in the nuclear science.

Apart from taking the climatic and geographic features of the location of plants (such as earthquake proneness and tsunami possibilities) into account, we have now what is called the passive safety system for nuclear reactors that keeps the reactors cool in the event of an accident.

When a reactor shuts down, the radioactive byproducts of the nuclear fission continue to generate heat. Failure to remove that heat can damage the reactor’s nuclear fuel and cause radiation leaks, something that happened at Fukushima.

There was nothing wrong with the nuclear reactor as such; the problem occurred when following a tsunami, the Fukushima plant was shut down. There was no electricity for the safety system to remove the excess heat. Under the traditional safety system, the vulnerability of the nuclear plants is dependent on the availability of the electric power for cooling operations.

However, the new technologies have upgraded the reactors to such an extent that we have now what is called the "passive safety system", which relies on gravitational forces to remove excess heat. After all, heat-removal is the basis for safety.

For instance, our Kudankulam plants in Tamil Nadu have four channels of safety system, sufficient for an "immediate stopping of the chain reaction in case of crisis"; in fact, the system is designed to ensure water supply for cooling of the reactor even if there is a blackout for 24 hours.

In addition, passive safety systems reduce the number of valves and pumps in nuclear plants by at least 50 percent, thereby not necessitating a bigger space for a reactor, which, in turn, is less labour intensive and vulnerable to sabotage.

The third bottleneck has been India’s unique nuclear liability laws of 2010 that talk of compensation in the event of nuclear accidents in a plant. As India is not self-sufficient in nuclear fuel and technology, it has to import them from outside. The universal practice is that in the event of an accident, it is the Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) that gives the compensation.

No nuclear exporting country or farm undertakes the responsibility of safety, operations and maintenance of the NPP it has sold fuel and technology to. There has to be a national law or bilateral arrangement or international liability regime (such as Vienna-based Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) for Nuclear Damage or Paris Convention on Third Party Nuclear Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy) for the exporter and importer to manage the liability in case any nuclear accident takes place affecting a third party or the country.

Based on this principle, India passed a Liability Act in the Parliament in 2010 that places responsibility for any nuclear accident with the operator, as is standard internationally, and limits total liability to 300 million SDR (about US$ 450 million) "or such higher amount that the Central government may specify by notification".

Sea waves hit the rocks as Kudankulam nuclear power. Reuters

Sea waves hit the rocks as Kudankulam nuclear power. Reuters

Operator liability is capped at Rs 1500 crore (about US$ 285 million) or such higher amount that the Central government may notify, beyond which the Central government is liable. However, after compensation has been paid by the operator (or its insurers), clause 17 (b) of the Indian Act allows the operator to have legal recourse to the supplier for up to 80 years after the plant starts up if in the opinion of an Indian court the “nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employee, which includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects or sub-standard services.”

This clause giving recourse to the supplier for an operational plant is contrary to international conventions and undermines the channelling principle fundamental to nuclear liability. Also, no limit is set on suppliers' liability.

Obviously, all potential nuclear suppliers to India were unhappy. They wanted the law to be suitably amended, even though the fact remains that the stringent provision of 17 (b) was incorporated under the pressure of the BJP, then in opposition.

In fact, this clause was the brainchild of the present finance minister Arun Jaitely. Of course, in November 2011 the Department of Energy (DAE) published a notification that claims by plant operators against component suppliers "shall in no case exceed the actual amount of compensation" paid by utilities.

The new Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Rules gives plant operators the right of recourse against equipment suppliers related to "the extent of the operator's liability" or "the value of the contract itself, whichever is less." They also limit it to the duration of the initial plant licence "or the product liability period, whichever is longer." But still, this was seen as confusing and is not satisfactory to major suppliers.

However, after assuming office in 2014, the Modi government has retrieved the situation to a great extent. First, it asked the ministry of external affairs to come out with clarifications that clause 17 (b) of the CLND will remain mostly on paper and that the section 46, which refers to the right of victims to sue in case of a nuclear accident according to ‘tort’ law, will not apply to the suppliers.

In 2015, the Modi government created a 15 billion rupees ($222 million) insurance pool to shield the operator, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, and the suppliers against claims. And most importantly, it ratified last year the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC), which the Manmohan Singh-government had signed in 2010.

The CSC, a free-standing international nuclear liability regime, will give India access to international funding, beyond those available through national resources, to pay for damages in the event of a nuclear accident as per international practices.

Viewed thus, the latest decision of the Modi-government to augment nuclear power generation is a logical corollary.

Published Date: May 18, 2017 02:36 pm | Updated Date: May 18, 2017 02:36 pm

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