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India’s Emerging Nuclear Market

Updated: August 28, 2010 12:39 pm

Canada’s recent decision to resume civilian nuclear trade with India after an absence of 36 years illustrates how far India has come since the international isolation following its 1974 nuclear test, Frank O’Donnell comments

Canada and the US were among the first states to sign nuclear trade agreements with India, supporting the claims of the Indian government that nuclear power would usher in a new era of economic development and lift its communities out of poverty. New Delhi assured Washington and Ottawa that nuclear facilities built in India would be used for entirely civilian and peaceful purposes.

                With this understanding, Canada helped establish India’s first CIRUS nuclear research reactor in 1954, and later sold India two CANDU reactors, fuelled by natural uranium. The US agreed to supply India with the ‘heavy water’ neutron moderator required for the CIRUS reactor to sustain stable nuclear fission.

                India extracted plutonium from the CIRUS reactor and conducted a nuclear test in 1974. It depicted the nuclear test as a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, as part of a fig leaf “Plowshare” civilian program of testing new explosives for public construction works.

                Realizing that facilities supplied to India were being used for military ends, the US and Canada gradually restricted their nuclear cooperation with India. Canada eventually terminated all nuclear trade with India. The Nuclear Suppliers Group was established to enforce export controls on nuclear technology, to prevent the Indian precedent of “peaceful nuclear explosives” being replicated by other states.

                The international isolation faced by India following the 1974 tests, and accompanying restrictions on its nuclear trade potential, created limits on the size of its civilian nuclear infrastructure and arsenal potential. This was overturned with the 2005 US-India civil nuclear agreement, and the related exemption India secured from Nuclear Suppliers Group trade restrictions in 2008.

                As part of the 2005 arrangement, India has agreed to place 14 reactors under IAEA monitoring, while reserving eight others for military purposes. India’s determination to take full advantage of the agreement, announcing bold plans to greatly expand its civilian nuclear power infrastructure with international assistance, creates new market opportunities for global nuclear power firms.

                Stalwart states of the nuclear non-proliferation regime are currently considering entering the Indian nuclear power market. Japan is conducting talks with Indian diplomats regarding the possible sale of Japanese reactors to India. Australia is debating whether to sell uranium to India.

                In this context, the recent Canada-India nuclear deal, opening the door for Canadian uranium and nuclear technology sales to India, is symbolic. Given that Canada’s previous experience with Indian nuclear commerce involved seeing Canadian nuclear aid directed to meet Indian military goals, the agreement represents a second effort from Ottawa to entrench peaceful nuclear trade as part of its bilateral India relationship.

                However, this new wave of civilian nuclear trade with India could still have military impacts. As leading Indian strategist                   K Subrahmanyam has highlighted, the increased access to foreign uranium made possible by the lifting of nuclear trade restrictions allows India “to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refueled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade plutonium production.”

                India is presently expanding military uranium enrichment facilities, and building a breeder reactor that could greatly contribute to its military plutonium stockpile.

                Indian strategic thinkers are currently debating how India’s nuclear future will look. Recent discussions in domestic Indian strategic discourse have concerned conducting a new series of nuclear tests and abandoning its no-first-use declaratory doctrine.

                It is unclear if Canada and other states considering entry to India’s civilian nuclear power market are fully aware of these potential consequences from their assistance. Increased nuclear commerce with India will generate revenue, but could free up Indian domestic uranium sources to be devoted to an accelerated military nuclear program.



The strong correlation between per capita electricity generation and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is well known. Therefore, to realise the high growth rates envisaged by the country, electricity generation has to increase in tandem.

                A group in the department studied available information on GDP and population growth forecasts, trends with regard to energy—GDP elasticity and electricity intensity of industries and developed a scenario for the growth of electricity. Scenarios have been developed by other agencies as well, though the numbers differ depending on the assumptions made for building the scenarios. The message from all such exercises is the same and that is, India is a poor fuel resource country and there is a need to tap every fuel resource to meet India’s energy needs. The contribution of nuclear energy, therefore, has to be increased at the fastest possible pace so that nuclear electricity is able to meet about a quarter of the national electricity demand after about five decades and gets poised to make still higher contribution in the subsequent years.

                Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) together with other institutions under the DAE framework has a mature knowledge of the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) technology. The known reserves of uranium in the country can support about 10 GWe of installed electricity capacity based on PHWRs for a life-time of 40 years at 80 per cent capacity factor. With 12 PHWRs under operation and 6 under construction, about half the first stage of the nuclear power programme has been realised. This phase of the programme has established a sound technological base for nuclear power in the country and the rest of the PHWR programme can be realised with comparative ease. If the ongoing exploration efforts in the country locate additional uranium reserves, PHWR programme can also be expanded beyond the envisaged 10 GWe now considered feasible. The PHWR programme has also provided the initial inventory of plutonium needed to seed the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) programme.

                NPCIL must finalise the design of 700 MWe PHWR at the earliest and all PHWR units to be constructed hereafter should be of this size. In addition to the PHWR programme, two Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) of 1 GWe each are being set up at Kudankulam in technical cooperation with Russian Federation. The present plan is to set up 6 additional PWRs of 1 GWe size and 4 additional FBRs of 500 MWe size by the year 2020. It was proposed to immediately initiate design of 1 GWe FBR and complete it at the earliest. R&D for deployment of metal alloy fuels having high breeding ratio must be completed in the next 10-15 years and all the FBRs to be constructed after the year 2020 should be based on such a fuel and should be of 1 GWe size.

                The design of a mainly thorium fuelled 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) is nearing completion. This reactor will provide a platform for the timely development, demonstration and optimisation of several technologies for the utilisation of thorium, needed for the third stage of the Indian nuclear programme. AHWR has several innovative design features, including passive safety systems, making it a front-runner among the recent international initiatives for the development of innovative nuclear energy systems. Continued technological developments, facilitated by the experience with the construction and operation of the AHWR, should be pursued to further enhance the safety and economics of Indian advanced water cooled thermal reactor systems, and thorium based fuel cycles.

                It was proposed to optimise project gestation period by meticulously detailing the design using IT aided design processes and project management techniques, advancing pre-project activities and ordering of long-delivery components well in advance.

                Several recommendations were made for technological improvements aimed at improving availability of existing and future power plants. These included using predictive maintenance techniques for fault diagnosis, using fuel efficient reactor physics and control algorithms, implementing fuzzy logic control in reactor regulation and protection systems for eliminating operator intervention during reactor start-up and shut-down, conducting on-power inspection of coolant channels using fuelling machines in PHWRs. Recommendations were also made for ageing management and life extension programmes of the existing reactors.

Fuel Cycle

The growth of nuclear power in India envisaged in the previous section is possible provided robust technologies are developed for both the front end and the back end of the fuel cycle with a matching time frame. Presently, the known uranium reserves in India are modest and uranium production needs to be augmented manifold to realise the planned growth of PHWRs. Considering the low grade of uranium ore, low tonnage of some deposits, difficult terrain of some of the locations having rich deposits and strata bound uranium deposit associated with dolostone in the southern part of Cuddapah basin of Andhra Pradesh, it is challenging to speedily augment uranium production. Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD) has identified as many as 14 Middle Proterozoic basins in India, which can host un-confirmity-type deposits. Such deposits are of high grade, have large tonnage deposits and are concealed without any surface manifestation. Since such deposits are elongated and narrow, advanced drilling rigs with deviation control mechanism have to be deployed to prove such deposits. Exploration needs to be stepped up to locate new deposits including those concealed deep in the earth.

                There is a persisting need for developing techniques for economic and efficient extraction of uranium from lean sources and it should be done by research groups jointly with UCIL. Uranium extraction from phosphoric acid could be used to augment uranium supply. Monazite sand is another resource of uranium and IREL could examine recovering uranium by acid leaching followed by solvent extraction. Sea water can be an important source of uranium on a long-term basis and R&D for recovery of uranium from sea water should be systematically pursued.

                To make fuel fabrication economical and eco-friendly, Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) has to implement robust manufacturing technologies to minimise the process steps and rejections, leading to a decrease in cycle times, effluents and power consumption. Automated inspection using laser metrology, machine vision systems etc, should be employed to enhance fuel quality, minimise manpower and lead to defect-free manufacturing which would save cost significantly. Alternate processes such as sol-gel process, which are ideal for remote fabrication, need to be developed to a level of maturity. Microwave technology will immensely help fuel fabrication and recycle steps minimising liquid waste. A unified alloy for all thermal reactor components will greatly reduce the cost. Specifications for fuel and other components should be reviewed to reduce manufacturing cost without sacrificing fuel performance. Improved austenitic stainless steels for claddings and advanced ferritic steels for wrappers with close tolerances on composition, microstructure and dimensions, with minimum rejects will economise power through FBRs and can be addressed by networking the expertise of Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Mishra Dhatu Nigam (MIDHANI), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay and NFC.

Nuclear Energy And Climate Change


As the threat of climate change increases, nuclear power is once again in fashion. But given high costs, long construction periods and lack of tangible incentives to build nuclear capacity, can the technology help cap emissions and avert climate disaster?

When a former anti-nuclear campaigner and founding member of Greenpeace proclaims in the Washington Post that “the environmental movement needs to update its views… because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster,” we should pay attention.

                Patrick Moore and many others feel that nuclear power is the only energy source that can replace the carbon-emitting coal and natural gas power plants that currently generate the bulk of the world’s electricity. Unlike renewables, nuclear power is large-scale (most plant designs today are at least 1000 MW), provides constant rather than intermittent power and is relatively carbon-free. Despite continuing concerns about waste, reactor safety and nuclear weapons, the odds certainly seem stacked in favor of nuclear power in a world that is apparently alarmed about the consequences of climate change.

                Despite efforts by some governments and multilateral accords like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), carbon emissions increased from 20.9 gigatonnes (Gt) in 1990 to 28.8 Gt in 2007. If government policies continue along their current trajectory, it projects this number will rise at a rate of 1.5 percent per year to 40.2 Gt by 2030.

                The Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that some of the major stresses of climate change on, inter alia, food production, biodiversity and water security will become increasingly noticeable by 2020, and certainly by 2030. NASA’s Jim Hansen, perhaps the world’s foremost climatologist, warns that the situation is so dire that “the entire world needs to be out of the business of burning coal by 2030 and the western world much sooner.”

A nuclear solution?

Meanwhile, the contribution of nuclear energy to global electricity production declined from just shy of 17 percent in 2001 to just above 13 percent in 2009. One cause is the atrophy of the industry’s capacities since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s due to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, interest rate increases, cost overruns, construction delays and the resulting cancellations of scores of projects. Industry advocates like Steve Kidd attempt to assuage concern about the slow pace of nuclear energy’s resurgence by arguing that the industry is undergoing fundamental changes that will bear fruit in perhaps five to 10 years in the form of serial production of reactors, higher industrial learning rates and falling costs.

But can nuclear energy be nimble and flexible enough to seriously contribute toward reducing carbon output in the short term? During the 1980s, when more nuclear reactors were built worldwide than in any other decade, the median construction time for a single plant was just over eight years. For countries embarking on a nuclear program for the first time it can take at least 10 years from the decision to proceed with the first power plant to its connection to the electricity grid. If it takes the nuclear industry five to 10 years to resuscitate itself and then roughly eight to 10 years to build each reactor, it seems doubtful that nuclear energy can make a major short-term contribution toward carbon reduction, especially when there is a need to replace existing reactors with new ones.

                In assessing options for reducing carbon emissions cost is key. In deregulated electricity markets governments and utility companies will pursue the best value for money to displace carbon. Nuclear power’s high and rising costs and long lead times are likely to drive investors elsewhere, at least in the short term. Other alternatives for reducing carbon include renewables like wind and solar, cogeneration, technologies still in development such as carbon-capture and storage (CCS), and perhaps the best value for money of them all end-use efficiency and conservation.

                The major comparative disadvantage of nuclear power relative to these other options is that a nuclear power plant has a multi-billion dollar up-front price tag and takes many years before it produces its first kilowatt. For investors, this means nuclear projects are high risk, which, in turn, is reflected in the cost of capital, making them prone to cost overruns when delays occur.

                The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2003 study, The Future of Nuclear Power, makes the case for nuclear power as an important component of a strategy to combat climate change and advocates solutions to some of the challenges it faces. Such solutions include government subsidies for first entrants, a tax on carbon and moves by the industry to become more cost-effective through such means as serial production. Lamenting the lack of action so far, a 2009 update of the study warns that “If more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.”

                This warning is exactly right: Without major policy shifts in the immediate future nuclear energy’s impact on carbon mitigation, apart from the carbon the current nuclear fleet is already displacing, will not just be minimal, it will be virtually unnoticeable.

Putting a price on carbon

At the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit the international community tried to agree on a new legally-binding deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol that would have mandated deeper cuts in carbon emissions. As in the case of Kyoto, states would have been able to choose their own method of achieving their targets, including through a carbon cap and trade system or a carbon tax. Although major emitters agreed to non-binding cuts, no new legally binding global regime emerged, and efforts will continue in Mexico later this year. There were also no proposals on the table for giving nuclear energy a privileged position in meeting greenhouse gas targets.

                Without legally binding greenhouse gas reductions states are less likely to put a price on carbon, and nuclear power will remain more expensive than coal and gas. Even if a carbon price is eventually imposed, it will take years for it to reach a sufficiently high and stable level for investors to be drawn to nuclear energy. Moreover, such a price would benefit all low carbon alternatives, not just nuclear. Given that the price of such alternatives as solar and wind is dropping rapidly while nuclear is becoming more expensive, a price on carbon may not make as much of a difference as presumed.

                The nuclear industry and environmentalists alike both correctly argue that the externalities of coal and gas in this case the consequences of the pollution they emit are not currently accounted for. The harsh reality, however, is that without progress at the individual state and international levels toward carbon pricing, nuclear power will not be economically competitive. In many countries real decisions about pricing carbon are years away, while decisions about nuclear energy need to be made now if it is to contribute in a meaningful way.

 Predicting the future

The final report of the Nuclear Energy Futures (NEF) Project a joint project of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC) at Carleton University titled The Future of Nuclear Energy to 2030 and Its Implications for Safety, Security and Nonproliferation, details the numerous constraints that are likely to prevent a significant revival of nuclear energy. Among these, the high cost of nuclear power relative to other ways of reducing carbon looms large. Other constraints include industrial bottlenecks, personnel shortages, waste management and, for aspiring nuclear energy states, many of which are developing countries, the additional hurdles of institutional capacity, physical infrastructure and finances.

                Plans for new nuclear build have been announced in 19 of the current 31 countries with nuclear energy, the most extensive of which are in China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, the UK and the US. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) currently lists 16 reactors under construction in China, the most of any country by far. But even China’s most ambitious plans will see an increase to just five percent of its total generating capacity provided by nuclear power. The US, currently the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, has 104 reactors generating 101 MW of electricity, roughly 20 percent of its total electricity. For nuclear power to maintain that market share, taking into account rising energy demand and the need to replace the existing aging fleet, about 50 reactors would need to be built in the next 20 years. Given that only one is currently under construction, a build rate of over four reactors per year would likely be necessary after 2015. Although the Obama administration has recently shown some additional support for nuclear power, it is not enough to ensure the construction of 50 new reactors by 2030.

                In addition, there are 34 countries that currently do not have nuclear power that have declared their intention to pursue it. The NEF Project’s Survey of Emerging Nuclear Energy States (SENES) tracks the progress of these states. So far it has been slow, with most only taking some of the easy initial steps, and only a handful having a chance of succeeding before 2030. Past plans for nuclear builds have invariably been overly optimistic, and there are few indications that the current grand plans of most states will be fulfilled.

                Despite attempts in the past decade to revive nuclear power, the bottom line on nuclear energy and climate change is this: Nuclear energy may be relatively carbon-free and able to provide reliable baseload electricity, but it is not cheap, quick or flexible enough to have a significant impact on carbon mitigation in the next couple of decades. It will take a range of policy initiatives and technologies to tackle climate change, beginning with those that can have the most immediate impact for the least cost.


By Justin Alger and Trevor Findlay

Rapid growth of fast reactors is possible only through the deployment of metal alloy fuels with high breeding ratio. It is necessary to launch urgently a large programme for studying irradiation behaviour of metal alloy fuels to generate the database necessary for physics design, development of technology for fabrication, characterisation and pyro-electrochemical processing.

                The challenges foreseen for reprocessing of spent fuel from PHWRs, FBRs and AHWR are related to enhancing the capability to process fuels with higher burn-ups, having plutonium content, with lower waste production and increased use of remote handling techniques. Separation of uranium-plutonium-thorium in reprocessing streams is an additional requirement for AHWRs. Development of a single cycle flow sheet with high organic loadings for achieving higher decontamination factors is one of the important goals for the reprocessing technology. The flow sheet should also enable partial or total partitioning of plutonium. Equipment such as rotary dissolver, constant volume feeders and fluidic devices need to be developed and validated for their performance. Pyrochemical reprocessing need to be developed for processing FBR fuels discharged at high burn-up with short cooling time.

                R&D on materials is required to address Zr and Ta based materials for dissolvers and evaporators, coatings for electrodes and radiation-resistant polymeric seals and winding insulations. In-service inspection techniques need to be developed in order to assess the safety status and residual life of components as well as take steps to enhance their life. Enhanced computer codes, based on thermodynamic modelling, would cover a wider variety of actinides and fission products. Electrolytic conditioning, acid killing and partitioning have to be adopted for reducing waste production. On/off-line monitoring of all the streams and hulls has to be undertaken to address issues related to nuclear material accounting as well as minimise loss of nuclear materials. It is also important to undertake on priority, indigenous development of pulsed neutron generators for active neutron assay of hulls and diamond based detectors for on-line determination of plutonium in process streams.

                Waste management is a subject that needs sustained development. It is necessary to induct new technologies so as to enhance performance and minimise waste, leading to very low impact on the environment and enhanced safety. This poses a challenge considering the already low levels of effluents, which are in the range of 10-3 to 10-4 micro Curie per millilitre (µCi/ml). Adoption of membrane based technologies such as reverse osmosis, bio-separations and nano/ultra-filtration techniques has to be considered to address these challenges. Indigenous development of membranes, overall process engineering and retrofitting of these processes and technologies in the existing plants need to be taken up.

                Annual generation of high level waste (HLW) volumes will be nearly 700 cubic metres by the year 2011 as against the present volume of 170 cubic metres. As the programme expands, these volumes will keep increasing. To handle these increased waste volumes, adoption of robust vitrification melters with higher throughputs are necessary with improved off-gas treatment enhancing the decontamination of volatiles like ruthenium & cesium.

                A long-term strategy for high-level waste management is to partition the minor actinides and long lived fission products from HLW. This calls for a multi-step processing involving the use of suitable solvents. For reprocessing fast reactor fuels, it is necessary to take up design and synthesis of selective, efficient, eco-friendly and radiation-resistant solvents such as higher tri-alkyl phosphates and substituted amides, which can permit high actinide loading without third phase formation.

                Overall strategy has to be to ensure that uranium and plutonium are recovered and recycled, fission products like 137Cs and 90Sr are recovered and used for radiation processing and as heat source, short half life fission products are separated and stored under institutional control, and long half life fission products and minor actinides are separated and stored in deep geological repositories after vitrification.

                Demonstration of feasibility and safety of deep geological disposal is a major challenge ahead. A national level multidisciplinary programme is necessary for setting up an underground research laboratory to develop and demonstrate methodologies and technologies for a deep geological repository. R&D activities have to be directed towards effective & environmentally benign processes and technologies.

                Development of advanced oxidation processes including wet air oxidation, photochemical oxidation, supercritical water oxidation etc on an industrial scale need to be initiated and developed. Development of specific sorbents and magnetic assisted separations will have a key role to play in future waste management plants. Recovery of zirconium from the hulls, though a challenge, would be highly desirable. Management of waste from pyro-chemical reprocessing will have to be addressed in the future. Materials compatible with high corrosive and high temperature environments encountered during vitrification need to be identified. In-service inspection techniques for health monitoring of equipment need to be developed.

                In-house (BARC, IGCAR, Heavy Water Board) solvent synthesis activity and collaboration with academic institutions for exotic solvents need to be strengthened. Large-scale synthesis of diamides, glycolamides (TODGA), SANEX (Selective ActiNide EXtraction process) solvents or crown ethers has to be taken up enabling mixer-settler runs by the year 2006 and pilot runs by the year 2010. Pilot plants using hollow fibre membranes/ magnetically assisted separations can be visualised by the year 2010. Attempts should be made to evaluate the possibility of bio-sorption and phyto-sorption of actinides and long-lived fission products onto microorganisms and sorbents of plant origin. Ultra-filtration and reverse osmosis technologies for low level waste (LLW) and intermediate level waste (ILW) treatment have to be developed on pilot scale by the year 2009. Utilisation of supercritical fluids and room temperature ionic liquids need to be studied on laboratory scale. Fluidised bed de-nitration can be applied to the waste management programme by the year 2012.

New Energy Systems

The projections about the energy requirement beyond five decades and available indigenous energy resources indicate a large gap between them. Given the urgent necessity to bridge this future energy resource-requirement gap and the vast resource of thorium at hand, it is essential to accelerate the work on thorium utilisation.

                However, since thorium is not a fissile material, it needs to be “bred”. Fast breeder reactor is one way to breed, but the breeding rate is not high. Alternate technologies, which offer shorter doubling time, need to be explored and developed. The potential technologies under investigation and possible development are based on the use of an external non-fission source of neutrons. The neutrons could be generated either by a spallation reaction using a high energy proton accelerator or by fusion reactions involving deuterium/tritium nuclei. While the accelerator driven systems are aiming for a novel and safe kind of a thorium burner, the fusion systems like tokamaks are aiming for a large-scale thorium-to-uranium converter. Both the programmes are being pursued in the DAE institutions. The present programme of Tokamak research in the country is already geared for exploiting the recent success of Tokamaks, to design systems with the above objective. Other fusion systems, like laser or inertial fusion also need to be explored for the expected neutron fluence and their extrapolation to multi-mega-joule sources.

                A high temperature heat source would be necessary for the thermo chemical generation of hydrogen—the energy carrier of tomorrow. Like electricity, hydrogen is environmentally benign and has to be produced from some other fuel. For the development of high temperature heat source, the nuclear energy is the most desirable option. The high temperature reactor system, with the-state-of-the-art passive inherent safety features, calls for developments in high temperature materials, fuel (like TRISO coated particles), heavy liquid metal coolant and many associated technologies for the different systems of the reactor.

                There is also a need to develop storage and transportation systems for hydrogen, which could also be used for storage of other isotopes of hydrogen. Storage systems would be needed in very near future as part of heavy water clean up facilities. Possible storage technologies include storage in high pressure vessels, storage as a cryogenic liquid and storage after fixing as metal hydride in a metal matrix.

                All the activities for the design and development of thorium breeders, high temperature reactors and production of the radio-isotopes would need to be backed by the development of advanced computational capability in reactor physics design supported by extensive experiments for the generation of nuclear data especially for the thorium fuel cycle.

Based on inputs from Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India.


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