Towards an Energy Independent India

chidambaram "Today,India is the only developing country that has demonstrated its capability to design, build, operate and maintain nuclear power plants,manufacture all associated equipment and components,and produce the required nuclear fuel and special materials," says Dr.R.Chidambaram, Chairman,Atomic Energy Commission , India.

The Indian Energy Scenario

India is a country occupying 2% of the world's land mass and currently generating about 2% of the global electricity, mostly using low grade coal of which it has about 5% of the world reserves.

India has, however a share of 16% in the world's population. To achieve a modestly high level of economic growth, the domestic generation capacity needs to be increased at least tenfold, to about 900 GWe. Even with full utilisation of all existing commercially exploitable domestic hydrocarbon, hydroelectric and non-conventional resources, this level of increased generation capacity cannot be sustained for more than a few decades. For a large country like India, bulk imports of fuel or energy are neither affordable nor strategically prudent.

The Role of Nuclear Power

The Indian Uranium reserves -about 0.8% of the world - cannot contribute to any significant improvement in the situation if this Uranium is used on once-through basis and then disposed off as waste. However, with a carefully planned programme, the available Uranium can be used to harness the energy contained in non-fissile thorium, of which India possesses about 32% of the world's reserves. The first stage of this programme involves using the indigenous uranium in Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) which efficiently produce not only energy but also fissile plutonium. In the second stage, by reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel and using the recovered plutonium in Fast Breeder Reactors, the non-fissile depleted uranium and thorium can breed additional fissile nuclear fuel, plutonium and uranium-233 respectively. In the third stage thorium and uranium-233 based nuclear reactors can meet the long term Indian energy requirements.

The Indian concerns and priorities are thus quite unique. For its long term energy security India has no option but to deploy nuclear power according to a strategy precisely tuned to its needs and resources.

Early History of Evolution of  the Indian Nuclear Programme

Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha formulated this strategy nearly 40 years ago, when India possessed hardly any infrastructure to support the nascent nuclear technology. The first Prime Minister of India, Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, helped Bhabha lay the foundations of the Indian atomic energy programme with self-reliance as the motto. Accordingly a large R & D establishment named Atomic Energy Establishment housed in Trombay, was progressively set up. This establishment, renamed Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) after India tragically lost Bhabha in an air crash in 1966, operates research reactors, basic facilities for nuclear research, supporting infrastructure and trained man-power in all disciplines dealing with nuclear energy.

The Indian nuclear power programme commenced in 1969 with the building of the twin units of Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS), employing Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs), with American assistance. The reason for this choice lay in favourable performance guarantees for these reactors, and a need to quickly gain experience in running nuclear power plants.

The first two Indian PHWRs, RAPS-1, RAPS-2, were taken up for construction as a joint venture with Canada. In parallel, the Department of Atomic Energy set up facilities for fabrication of fuel, Zirconium alloy components, manufacture of precision reactor components, and production of heavy water. The import content of RAPS-1 was 45% and the half of its first core fuel charge was indigenously produced using high standards of quality demanded by the specifications. Commercial operation of RAPS-1 commenced in December 1973.

In the year 1974, after the peaceful nuclear experiment conducted by India at Pokharan, the Canadian support was abruptly withdrawn. RAPS-2 was under construction then. France too, followed suit by refusing to supply fuel for the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) which was then under construction with French assistance. The USA expressed its inability to continue fulfilling its contractual obligations to supply fuel for TAPS. The era of technology control regimes had thus begun for the Indian nuclear programme.

Coping with the Pokharan Fallout

The sudden withdrawal of foreign technical assistance and supplies would have caused an irrecoverable set back to the Indian nuclear programme, if not its collapse. This did not happen on account of Indian determination to face the challenges head-on with the help of the R & D infrastructure already created to develop self-reliance, and the support of the Indian industry. The challenges included not only the continuation of the on going activities without external help but also the pursuit of the originally stipulated long term strategies.

To cut the long story short, while causing delays in some ongoing projects, the embargoes spurred the growth of an indigenous capability of developing substitutes for the denied products, technologies and knowhow. RAPS-2 started commercial operation in 1981; FBTR went critical in 1985, using indigenously made plutonium-uranium mixed carbide fuel. India also developed a plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel, and facilities for its industrial scale production, as an alternative to the enriched uranium based fuel for TAPS. India has not looked back since then, and has continued to proceed on its chosen path without depending on external help.

The Present and the Future

Today, India has ten nuclear power reactors in operation. The designs of its new reactors have progressively evolved to incorporate advanced features to further improve safety, reliability and economics.It has successfully developed the technologies for in-service inspection, maintenance and refurbishment of the older plants.Four PHWRs are currently under construction and another ten are planned for construction in the near future .These include the 500 MWe PHWRs fully designed and developed in India .Further, to accelerate the growth of nuclear power, it is contemplated to build a few light water reactor based plants with foreign collaboration.The immediate objective is to achieve 20,000 MWe of nuclear generation capacity by the year 2020.

Indian heavy water plants and zirconium alloy components manufacturing facilities have consistently met not only the domestic requirements but also export commitments.The Indian fuel fabrication facilities are capable of manufacturing a wide range of nuclear fuel based on natural uranium ,enriched uranium,plutonium , and uranium-233.Plants for treatment and disposal of various types of radioactive wastes have been set up and are operating as an integral part of every nuclear facility in the country .The fuel reprocessing facilities for extracting plutonium from spent fuel of the PHWRs are already operational.

Technologies associated with the fast reactor programme have been mastered .The indigenous efforts for the installation of first 500 MWe prototype FDR have begun and the design has been optimised .

India is an emerging leader in the development of reactor and associated  fuel cycle technologies for Thorium utilization .A 30 KW(Th) research reactor KAMINI has become operational last year and is perhaps, one of its only kind in the world currently operating with uranium-233 based nuclear fuel .India's Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) which employs thorium based fuel , has several advanced passive safety features, and goes beyond the requirements generally stipulated for the next generation nuclear power plants, currently being developed.

Today, India is the only developing country that has demonstrated its capability to design , build , operate and maintain nuclear power plants, manufacture all associated equipments and components and produce the required nuclear fuel and special materials .With assured government support during the IXth Five Year   Plan,which started this year the future of nuclear power in India is bright   and ,in fact, the target of 20,000 MWe by the year 2020 is considered by some people in the Indian industry as conservative .