After decades of cloudy thinking, India desperately needs a coherent nuclear strategy

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act is but a symptom of a far greater malaise that has plagued Indian nuclear thinking for decades.

Jaideep Prabhu October 29, 2015 11:40:31 IST
After decades of cloudy thinking, India desperately needs a coherent nuclear strategy

Few things are as confounding as watching India mismanage its nuclear energy policy. The India-US nuclear deal in 2008 raised hopes that the country might be on the verge of a nuclear renaissance, but Delhi handled subsequent steps with about as much aplomb as a tap-dancing platypus. The latest fallout of this ham-handed approach to nuclear policy has been Areva's stalling on the pace of their nuclear project at Jaitapur over the liability law; General Electric also recently announced that it will not participate in the Indian nuclear market until the country's nuclear liability law meets international standards.

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (CLNDA) is but a symptom of a far greater malaise that has plagued Indian nuclear thinking for decades. In the early years after Independence, India's nuclear tsar Homi Bhabha had a close relationship with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Consequently, he could count on Nehru's support in his ambitions for India's nuclear programme. The prime minister himself was also a devotee of high technology for it signalled to him a way in which India might leapfrog several stages of development.

Bhabha used the fact that he had the prime minister's ear to dream big: He formulated the three-stage programme which would eventually see the country powered by thorium reactors and free from external dependencies. To reach this goal, India would first have to build a fleet of pressurised heavy water reactors and fast breeder reactors that would produce the fuel for the third stage. The chutzpah is astonishing when one considers that India did not even have a single nuclear reactor then.

After decades of cloudy thinking India desperately needs a coherent nuclear strategy

Representational image. Getty Images

Post-Nehru, Indian leaders have been distant of the nuclear programme. It was difficult, however, to disavow the programme. This was partly because the energy programme was inextricably interwoven with a weapons programme and India's principled opposition to international nuclear apartheid linked the political fortunes of both to each other. The closeness between Bhabha and Nehru, not to mention the latter's childlike fascination and wonder at big science, created a dynamic that has not since been replicated.

One thing India's political class has never been accused of is possessing in-house expertise and this shows in the way Delhi seems lost at sea when it comes to nuclear energy. The drastic adjustment of the growth target for nuclear energy in the country — from 63 GW to 27.5 GW — by 2032 betrays a worrying incompetence in the Indian bureaucracy, or at the very least a complete disconnect between scientists and policy-makers. The plan had been to build 16 domestic and 40 foreign reactors but fumbling on nuclear liability, viewed only through a prism of political expediency rather than technical criteria, repelled desperately-needed foreign investment in India's nuclear energy sector.

Even if foreign vendors were forthcoming, the cost of their products has also shot up due to the convoluted bypassing of nuclear liability via the suppliers' insurance pool. In the seven years since the epochal nuclear deal, the only good news the nuclear establishment can boast of is the securing of uranium supplies for the next decade or so.

The nuclear liability quagmire aside, Indian nuclear energy is still in complete disarray. Only six reactors are under construction in the country presently, a 1,000 MW VVER at Kudankulam, two 700 MW pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) at Kakrapar, two more similar reactors at Rawatbhata, and the 500 MW prototype fast breeder reactor (FBR) at Kalpakkam. All have seen significant delays in construction — an inter-governmental agreement between India and the Soviet Union was signed in 1988 but construction only began in 2002; Kakrapar and Rawatbhata were approved in 2005 but construction started in 2010, and the PFBR is at least three years behind schedule. These are among the faster projects - the nuclear power project in Gorakhpur was sanctioned in 1984, but finally broke ground only in 2014!

Delays are rampant across the industry. Yet most are due to political or bureaucratic inefficiencies such as trouble with land acquisition, unforeseen hurdles in financing, and at times, protests and litigation. Once the reactors are built, however, the nuclear enclave seems to have done a splendid job in operating and maintaining them - in 2003, Kakrapar was recognised by the CANDU owners group of being the best performing PHWR. Similarly, an IAEA team that visited Rawatbhata in 2012 reported that the reactors they inspected were safe and impressive; in 2014, one of the reactors at the same plant set a world record for the longest continuous operation.

Admittedly, some delays do arise due to technical shortcomings. For example, the design and construction of the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) for the PFBR took Larsen and Toubro almost three years more than anticipated; any increase in the power rating of future FBRs will again require a similar timeframe to re-design the RPV. The reason Indian manufacturing lags behind nuclear industry needs, P Chellapandi — chairman and managing director of Bhavini — explained, is that there is little incentive to pre-empt demand given how small and infrequent it is. India has built some 21 reactors in the 70 years since independence; by contrast, France built 60 reactors in just 20 years from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s under the Messmer Plan; the European Union's nuclear trade association, Foratom, has just called for 100 new reactors by 2050; China has 25 reactors under construction presently, has plans for 43 more, and is sitting on proposals for 136 more by 2030!

In the last couple of years, Areva, Toshiba, and Urenco have all looked for outside investors in their nuclear divisions. India has let the opportunities by without so much as a whimper. While India has secured nuclear fuel for the next decade, uranium prospecting or acquisition of mines abroad — especially when prices are so low — does not seem to have factored high on the Indian agenda.

In terms of technological cooperation too, India is nowhere on the international scene. China is the hot destination for nuclear vendors and startups — the size of Beijing's orders has persuaded GE to share its AP1000 technology with Chinese firms, and Bill Gates' TerraPower recently signed a deal with China National Nuclear Corporation to build the first of a new generation of reactors, the travelling wave reactor (TWR), a 1,150 MW liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor that uses depleted uranium as fuel. This type of reactor will generate less waste, be cheaper, and safer. In the meantime, India postponed the start of its PFBR again and the advanced heavy water reactor is nowhere in sight.

Like any large national project, say, for example, the highways or the railways, the utility and efficiency of nuclear power increases with scale. Furthermore, the high upfront cost of nuclear power demands a clear set of short and medium-term goals with a long-term vision. It is, therefore, essential that the government, either in partnership with the private sector or on its own, have a considered and clear-eyed policy for the industry. The urgency to meet deadlines, the impetus to remove roadblocks, must come from the top to galvanise the entire chain. Indian nuclear fingerprints appear nowhere in the various international nuclear ventures, from mining through construction to development.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outlined an environmentally-friendly trajectory for Indian development that is mindful of climate change, air quality, and other environmental concerns. It is unclear how he intends to meet these goals and grow the economy at eight percent per annum at the same time, without substantial help from nuclear power. Admittedly, plans for nuclear reactors at 10 sites were announced in April 2015, but it is unlikely any of this will come to fruition in a timely manner without developing Indian manufacturing and bringing the CLNDA in line with international practices. Thankfully not ubiquitous, the attitude that the world needs India more than vice versa is far too common among Indian bureaucrats, planners, and citizens. They are in for a rude surprise. As former commerce secretary Rahul Khullar succinctly explained in a recent article, this attitude, combined with domestic calculations, narrow ministerial interests, a fundamental lack of understanding of negotiating give and take beset India's negotiations with the outside world.

Even more helpful would be to rekindle the relationship between the prime minister's office and the heads of the nuclear community to the same level as that between Bhabha and Nehru — after all, nuclear energy does fall under the PMO and not the Power or New and Renewable Energy ministries. Modi seems to be the point source for visions and thinking big in the ruling party and were senior nuclear scientists to have the prime minister's ear, it may be just the sort of thing to accelerate growth in Indian nuclear energy. With their domain expertise and confidence of the prime minister's support, an ambitious yet realistic nuclear expansion programme can be launched. To be clear, there is no Indian century without nuclear power - clean air, carbon emissions control, plentiful energy, employment, economic growth, energy security... in one industry can India find solutions to so many of its needs.

We just need a little vision. Desperately.

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