For Atmanirbhar India expansion of nuclear power generation is essential – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 20 Oct 2023 1 Comment

Nuclear Power in India


India’s quest to make peaceful use of nuclear power began in 1954 when a multidisciplinary centre for research and development was set up near Mumbai (then, called Bombay), which later came to be known as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). The objective of Indian scientists, as formulated by Dr Homi Bhabha and the Indian authorities, was to develop a three-stage nuclear power generation program that would address India’s limited natural uranium reserves and the existence of a vast amount of thorium in the form of monazite in the beach sands of the state of Kerala.


The first stage of this program involved using natural uranium to fuel Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). The first stage would be used to generate electricity and plutonium. In the second stage, that plutonium would be utilized in the preparation of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) to generate electricity and also to enable breeding uranium-233 (U233) from thorium (Th 232), a fissionable material. In the third stage, which was identified as “the anchor of the future,” Th232-U233 would be used as fuel in advanced reactors for energy extraction from abundant thorium reserves and thereby achieve long-term energy security.


No target date was set for each stage of the nuclear power development program. And herein lies a problem. India’s three-stage nuclear power sustainability program is progressing, albeit a little too slowly.


In recent years, India has moved away from building 230-MW PHWRs to building 700 MW PHWRs. The first was commissioned this year at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Project in Gujarat. World Nuclear News reported that in 2022, Minister of State Jitendra Singh told the Lok Sabha that the Indian government had sanctioned the construction of ten 700-MW PHWRs (not including Kakrapar 3 and 4 and Rajasthan units 7 and 8) to be built in a “fleet mode” by the end of 2031. It is not clear what New Delhi means by “fleet mode,” but it is the first time that the Union government has approved the construction of 10 nuclear power reactors in one go.


These 700 MW reactors will be installed as: Kaiga units 5 and 6 in Karnataka; Gorakhpur units 3 and 4 in Haryana; Chutka units 1 and 2 in Madhya Pradesh; and Mahi Banswara units 1 and 2 and units 3 and 4 in Rajasthan. In addition, four Russian-supplied 1000 MW VVER pressurized water reactors are under construction at Kudankulam: units 3 and 4 (since 2017) and units 5 and 6 (since 2021). The 500 MW prototype fast breeder reactor which is almost a decade behind schedule is being built at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, and is expected to be completed in 2024.


Over the years, the Indian government has set targets for nuclear power generation and, for reasons not adequately explained, repeatedly pushed them back. For instance, in 2004, the target set for nuclear power capacity was 20 gigawatts (GW=1,000 MW) by 2020. In 2007, the government stated that this target could be doubled with the opening of international cooperation through the 123 nuclear agreement that was to be signed with the United States in 2008. In 2009, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) said that it aimed for a total capacity of 60 GW by 2032 including 40 GW of PWRs and 7 GW of PHWRs, all powered by imported uranium.


Projections in the draft energy policy of 2017 are more modest, even under the “ambitious” scenario - 12 GW nuclear power capacity in 2022 and 34 GW by 2040. In 2021, the government stated in parliament that nuclear power generation capacity would increase to 22.5 GW by 2031. This figure was reiterated in the parliament in 2022. India’s targets for adding nuclear power generation capacity have been described as aspirational by experts from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), according to Lydia Powell, Akhilesh Sati, and Vinod Kumar Tomar in their Observer Research Foundation report, “India’s targets for nuclear energy: Moving closer?” (May 18, 2023).


Behind nuclear power’s sub-par showing


The contribution of nuclear power in India’s present energy mix is a meagre 2.8 per cent or 6.78 GW. By contrast, wind and solar renewable energy sources, which took off during the last decade, together have a generation capacity of 110 GW. These generating capacity comparisons are not meaningful, however, because of the significant difference in the capacity factors in favour of nuclear power. At the same time, there is no doubt that nuclear power’s contribution to India’s energy mix is below par. India has set up 23 nuclear reactors - quite a large number in reality - but 18 of them have less than 300 MW generation capacity.


According to some critics, such as academics in India’s well-known think tank, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India’s decision to develop small-size reactors has been an impediment to nuclear power’s growth. The ORF analysts point out that the ten largest nuclear stations in China consist of 43 reactors with a total capacity of 45.6 GW. All the reactors in these nuclear “islands” have a capacity of 1,000 MW barring the oldest one, which has a capacity of 600 MW. With double the number of reactors compared to India, China has more than six times the nuclear capacity. South Korea has 24 nuclear power reactors, just one more than India; but South Korea’s total nuclear power capacity is 23.2 GW, more than three times that of India.


India’s small reactors have not necessarily meant lower costs, nor have they meant fewer experts employed per reactor. This has, in fact, reduced the contribution of the nuclear sector to overall power generation and, consequently, not contributed substantially to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It also increased the tariff for nuclear power as costs cannot be spread over a larger capacity (India’s targets for nuclear energy: Moving closer? Lydia Powell, Akhilesh Sati, Vinod Kumar Tomar: ORF: May 18, 2023)


While there is some merit in these observations, there are other problems that have kept the nuclear power generation sector an outlier and poor cousin to the fast-growing solar and wind power sectors. In their report, the ORF analysts argue that difficulty in mobilizing investment has been a factor in the government’s constant downward revision of targets for nuclear power, and that is certainly the case.


India’s physical capacity to manufacture reactors needs expansion, and this requires investment. The two main players are Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL). L&T makes reactor pressure vessels for India’s PHWRs and fast breeder reactors, and steam generators. L&T has a 9,000-ton open die press that can take 300-ton ingots and, according to reports, it plans to upgrade its capacity to 17,000 tons for ultra-large forgings. L&T holds the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) N-stamp accreditation. It has been involved in the supply of equipment, systems, and services for nearly all the PHWR reactors that have been indigenously built, including the manufacture of calandrias, end-shields, steam generators, primary heat transport systems, and heat exchangers.


State-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) claims to be the largest engineering and manufacturing enterprise in India in the energy-related infrastructure sector and has provided some 80 per cent of the heavy equipment for India’s indigenous nuclear power program, including all the steam turbines and generators. In March 2021, BHEL won a Rs 10,800 crore (US $1.5 billion) order for six 700 MW turbine islands. It has increased its total power plant production capacity to 20 GW per year and planned to spend US $7.5 billion in two years building plants to supply components for 1,600 MW reactor units. It also plans to set up a 50:50 venture with NPCIL that would supply components for nuclear plants of 700 MW, 1,000 MW, and 1,600 MW. It will also install a 10,000-ton forging press. It was also setting up an office in Shanghai in 2009 to source castings and forgings (World Nuclear News: Heavy Manufacturing of Power Plants: March 2021).


While these are commendable achievements, what is needed at this point is the capacity to manufacture more reactors annually. New Delhi must put a premium on encouraging private investors to get into this business. That would mean announcing a targeted plan to establish 5-10 nuclear reactors of 700 MW capacity every year. Keeping this much higher target in focus is a task for the implementers of Atmanirbhar India to push forward.


About SMRS


In addition to expanding the capability to manufacture 700 MW PHWRs at a rapid pace, India must also consider developing small modular reactors (SMRs), a new concept that is at an early stage worldwide. Although some experts say that building a cluster of SMRs instead of a large reactor is not capital cost-effective, the potential for factory-based mass production of the SMRs gives lie to that argument. Globally, there are about 50 SMR designs at different stages of development. Argentina, South Korea, China, Canada, and Russia have advanced, state-funded programs with operational plants.


Private companies, often with state assistance, based in industrialized countries including the U.S. and the U.K. are also in the race to commercialize SMRs.


What are SMRs? A nuclear reactor with a capacity of less than 300 MW is identified as a small reactor. India has installed a number of small reactors, but they are not SMRs. The M, for “modular,” is what makes the difference. In comparison to conventional nuclear power plants, SMRs are constructed in modules. Modular construction allows for additional units to be added incrementally at a site in the event that the load on the grid increases. Further, a standardized modular design allows for rapid production at decreasing cost, following the completion of the first reactor on site (Small modular reactors: a possible path forward for nuclear power: Nick Cunningham, American Security Project). The flexibility and modularity of SMRs also mean that at a single site with three or four SMRs, one can go offline for refuelling while the other reactors stay online.


Here are some reasons why SMRs could be attractive for a developing nation, such as India, that is committed to reducing carbon emissions significantly.

-       The smaller size of SMRs should translate into each reactor being less capital-intensive.

-       Transportation of fuel may be minimized because the reactors can be fuelled in the factory when they are built.

-       SMRs will require significantly less land than power plants with the same output that uses wind, solar, biomass, or hydropower.

-       The small size of SMRs may allow them to be sited in places where a large-baseload plant is not feasible or not needed.

-       Because of their small size, SMRs can be located underground. This would make them less vulnerable to natural phenomena and destructive acts by man, either through carelessness or by intention.

-       Because major components can be manufactured off-site and shipped to the point of use, SMRs allow for the centralization of manufacturing expertise. As a result, limited onsite construction is required, which means a reduction in labour costs and a reduction in the time between the construction of the reactor and when it begins to generate electricity.

-       Individual factories could fabricate components for multiple SMRs, increasing “fleet-wide” design consistency and standardization.

-       Modularity and standardized designs can also increase the safety and efficiency of plant operations, as they eliminate idiosyncratic design features between plants and streamline operating and maintenance procedures.

-       Nuclear plant operators can gradually scale up the number of SMRs at a single plant location as demand grows, distributing cost evenly throughout the lifetime of a nuclear power plant.


Think of this: A single 50 MW SMR could kick-start agricultural, industrial, commercial, and residential activity in an area that has remained underpopulated and underutilized due to a lack of water. How? And why is that important?


In India, indiscriminate use of groundwater has perpetuated a water crisis long seen coming. Bound to worsen, the crisis will hobble the Atmanirbhar Bharat project unless it is addressed head-on now. India has ambitious river diversion plans to meet the demands of water-short areas. But those plans have been hanging fire for decades. Moreover, the river-diversion plans have their limitations because India depends heavily on the annual monsoon to replenish its rivers and groundwater. On the other hand, India has a coastline of about 6,100 km touching nine states.


Using SMRs to power desalination will provide India with a reliable supply of usable water, and over a period will reduce the country’s dependence on fast-receding groundwater reserves. As underutilized areas along the coast develop on the basis of a reliable supply of water, and the population grows there, SMRs can be easily added to meet the rising demand for power in these centres.




In conclusion, why is the abundance of nuclear power in the coming years an essential ingredient for building an Atmanirbhar Bharat? The cornerstone of any country’s self-reliant economy is a steady and dependable supply of power. (It is for this reason alone, for example, that despite a commitment to reduce emissions China is still increasing its coal-based power generation capacity while also pushing forward rapidly with its nuclear power program.)


Nuclear power plants are on record for delivering steady, reliable power over decades. Also, nuclear plants require less maintenance and are designed to operate for longer stretches before refuelling – typically every 1.5 or 2 years. Nuclear power plants are highly efficient. Natural gas and coal capacity factors are generally lower due to routine maintenance and / or refuelling at these facilities. Because a typical nuclear reactor produces 1,000 MW of electricity, you cannot simply replace it with a coal or renewable plant of 1,000 MW capacity. To deliver the same amount of electricity into the grid as a 1,000 MW nuclear plant, you would need almost two coal plants or three to four renewable plants (each of 1,000 MW capacity).


The serious shortcomings of renewable power sources are now being addressed worldwide. Making solar (and the allied storage capacity it requires) work at a large scale will require billions of tons of materials to be mined, transported, and recycled. These materials include silica, copper, lead, zinc, and lithium, as well as enormous quantities of rare-earth elements and cobalt. All these processes will have a significant impact on land, population, and national security. Moreover, India does not have adequate deposits of most of the rare-earth elements. In the long run, the adoption of intermittent power sources will undermine India’s energy independence - which is the very reason Dr Bhabha and his associates started the nuclear program.


But that is not all. An equally disturbing and unaffordable aspect of wind and solar farms is that they occupy huge areas of landmass where nothing else can be situated. For instance, a 1,000 MW wind farm would require approximately 85,240 acres of land (approx. 133 sq. miles). Accounting for a range of capacity factors (32-47 per cent), between 1,900 MW and 2,800 MW of wind capacity would be required to produce the same amount of electricity as a 1,000 MW nuclear plant in a year.


Some in India argue that India has vacant land where solar panels and wind turbines can produce unlimited amounts of power. This is a myth. The truth is different. Across the country, rural communities are aspiring for better housing, educational and vocational training facilities, more land for growing agricultural products, and more land for industrial and commercial activities. It is likely that they will resist handing over huge areas for the installation of wind and solar projects which will prevent the achievement of Atmanirbhar Bharat.



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