ENERGY: India Makes Headway in Indigenous Atomic Power Programme

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By Clive Banerjee in New Delhi

The inauguration of Indias latest nuclear reprocessing plant by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on January 7, 2010 emphasizes once again the countrys commitment to developing a largely indigenous atomic power programme.

The facility at Tarapur in the West Indian state of Maharashtra will break down highly radioactive used nuclear fuel to extract uranium and plutonium for reuse in fast neutron reactors. It comes as a welcome addition to several reprocessing plants in India -- all operated by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) -- at Tarapur, Trombay and Kalpakkam.

Small plants at each site were supplemented in 1998 by a new one of 100 tonnes per year at Kalpakkam, and this is now being extended so that it may handle carbide fuel from the Fast Breeder Test Reactor.
The new plant also has a capacity of 100 tonnes per year, and another entirely new facility is under construction at Kalpakkam.

BARC, named after Dr. Homi Bhabha, the countrys pioneer in nuclear research, operates under the umbrella of the Government of Indias Department of Atomic Energy.

We have come a long way since the first reprocessing of spent fuel in India in 1964 at Trombay, said Prime Minister Singh at the inaugural ceremony attended by the countrys senior nuclear scientists and engineers. The recycling and optimal utilization of uranium is essential to meet our current and future energy security needs, he added.

Non-India sources confirm that India has a flourishing and largely indigenous nuclear power programme and expects to have 20,000 MWe (megawatt electricity) nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and 63,000 MWe by 2032. It aims to supply 25 percent of electricity from nuclear power by 2050.

Because India is outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty due to its weapons program, it was for 34 years largely excluded from trade in nuclear plant or materials, which has hampered its development of civil nuclear energy until 2009, says the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in its latest dossier on nuclear power in India.

It adds: Due to these trade bans and lack of indigenous uranium, India has uniquely been developing a nuclear fuel cycle to exploit its reserves of thorium. Now, foreign technology and fuel are expected to boost Indias nuclear power plans considerably. All plants will have high indigenous engineering content.

In fact, India has a vision of becoming a world leader in nuclear technology due to its expertise in fast reactors and thorium fuel cycle.

The backdrop to the countrys ambitious nuclear power programme, says the London-based WNA, is that electricity demand in India is increasing rapidly, and the 830 billion kilowatt hours produced in 2008 was three times the 1990 output, though it still represented only some 700 kWh per capita for the year. With huge transmission losses, this resulted in only 591 billion kWh consumption.

Coal provides 68% of the electricity at present, but reserves are limited. Gas provides 8%, hydro 14%. The per capita electricity consumption figure is expected to double by 2020, with 6.3% annual growth, and reach 5000-6000 kWh by 2050, the dossier informs.

Atomic power supplied 15.8 billion kWh (2.5%) of Indias electricity in 2007 from 3.7 GWe (of 110 GWe total) capacity. After a dip in 2008-2009 this is expected to increase steadily as imported uranium becomes available and new plants come on line.

The forecast for the year ending March 2010 was 22 billion kWh. In 2010-2011 24 billion kWh is expected. For 2011-2012, 32 billion kWh is now forecast.

Nuclear experts say that India had achieved some 300 reactor-years of operation by mid 2009. Indias fuel situation, with shortage of fossil fuels, is driving the nuclear investment for electricity, and 25% nuclear contribution is foreseen by 2050, when 1094 GWe of base-load capacity is expected to be required. Almost as much investment in the grid system as in power plants is necessary, says the WNA.

India committed almost US$ 9 billion in 2006 for power projects, including 9.35 GWe of new generating capacity, taking forward projects to 43.6 GWe and US$ 51 billion. In late 2009 the government said it was confident that 62 GWe of new capacity would be added in the 5-year plan to March 2012, and best efforts were being made to add 12.5 GWe on top of this.

But only 18 GWe had been achieved by the mid point of October 2009, when 152 GWe was on line. The governments five-year-year plan for 2012-2017 was targeting the addition of 100 GWe over the period. Three quarters of this would be coal- or lignite-fired, and only 3.4 GWe nuclear, including two imported 1000 MWe units at one site and two indigenous 700 MWe units at another.

The U.S. audit, tax and advisory services firm KPMG said in a report in 2007 that India needed to spend US$ 120-150 billion on power infrastructure over the next five years, including transmission and distribution (T&D). It said that T&D losses were some 30-40%, amounting to worth more than $6 billion per year.

The target since about 2004 has been for nuclear power to provide 20 GWe by 2020, but in 2007 the Prime Minister referred to this as modest and capable of being doubled with the opening up of international cooperation.
However, the World Nuclear Association says, that even the 20 GWe target will require substantial uranium imports. Late in 2008 NPCIL -- the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, a public sector enterprise under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy -- projected 22 GWe on line by 2015, and the government was talking about having 50 GWe of nuclear power operating by 2050.

Then in June 2009 NPCIL said it aimed for 60 GWe nuclear by 2032, including 40 GWe of PWR capacity and 7 GWe of new PHWR capacity, all fuelled by imported uranium. This target was reiterated late in 2010.

The Atomic Energy Commission however expects some 500 GWe nuclear on line by 2060, and has since speculated that the amount might be higher still: 600-700 GWe by 2050, providing half of all electricity.

These projections are grounded in the fact that nuclear power for civil use is well established in India. Civil nuclear strategy has been directed towards complete independence in the nuclear fuel cycle, necessary because it is excluded from the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty NPT due to it acquiring nuclear weapons capability after 1970.

Those five countries doing so before 1970 were accorded the status of Nuclear Weapons States under the NPT.

As a result, Indias nuclear power programme has proceeded largely without fuel or technological assistance from other countries. Its power reactors to the mid 1990s had some of the worlds lowest capacity factors, reflecting the technical difficulties of the countrys isolation, but rose impressively from 60% in 1995 to 85% in 2001-2002. Then in 2008-10 the load factors dropped due to shortage of uranium fuel.

WNA says: Indias nuclear energy self-sufficiency extended from uranium exploration and mining through fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design and construction, to reprocessing and waste management.
The Atomic Energy Establishment was set up at Trombay, near Mumbai, in 1957 and renamed as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre ten years later. Plans for building the first Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) were finalised in 1964, and this prototype - Rajasthan-1, which had Canadas Douglas Point reactor as a reference unit, was built as a collaborative venture between Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) and NPCIL. It started up in 1972 and was duplicated Subsequent indigenous PHWR development has been based on these units.

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