Between Ambition and Reality: India’s Nuclear Power Programme

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Undeterred by the Fukushima disaster, and notwithstanding the shoddy performance of its Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), India is forging ahead with ambitious plans to expand its nuclear energy generation capacity manifold from the present 4,780 megawatts (MW), which represents just 2 percent of India’s total installed electrical capacity of 230,000 MW.

India, like China, is one of the few countries of the world which plan to expand nuclear power generation. But after Fukushima, China pruned its nuclear power plans from 80-90,000 MW to 58,000 MW. India has raised its target for nuclear power expansion.

All manner of targets have been bandied about [1]. The most common ones quoted for about a decade 20,000 MW for 2020, and 63,000 MW for 2032 [2]. These were suddenly revised in 2011 to 14,600 MW by 2020-21 and 27,500 MW by 2032. The first target assumes that India would be able to complete on schedule all reactors currently under construction, install a number of indigenous fast-breeder reactors, and also import several reactors from the United States, France and Russia.

This is most unlikely to happen given India’s past record of missed targets. No Indian reactor has ever been built on schedule or without a 300 percent cost-overrun. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in the mid-1960s set targets of 20,000 MW for 1987, and 43,500 MW for 2000. The achievements were 512 MW and 2,720 MW. The 20,000-MW target was re-set for 2000, but arbitrarily lowered to 10,000 MW. This too was missed. The 20,000-MW goal was extended to 2020.

The revised 14,600-MW target inspires little confidence. Even if all the reactors currently under construction — two Russian 1,000 MW reactors at Koodankulam (Tamil Nadu), two 700 MW Indian reactors each at Kakrapar (Gujarat) and Rawatbhata (Rajasthan), and the latest 700 MW indigenous plant at Gorakhpur-Fatehabad (Haryana) — are completed by 2020-21, they will only add 5,500 MW. The total capacity will still fall 30 percent short of the target.

The possible addition of the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (500 MW), a high-risk, accident-prone reactor technology with which India has had very limited and far-from-successful experience, will still leave a gap of 26 percent.
 

Foreign Reactors and Indian Laws

To fill this gap, India would have to import reactors. This has become legally possible since 2008 when an exception was made for India in the global civilian nuclear commerce regime following the US-India nuclear deal. US, French and Russian companies have even been allocated land for nuclear plants. But nothing suggests that imported reactors would be erected in six to seven years’ time.

For instance, construction time for the latest Areva-designed European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) in Finland and France exceeds 10 years. The french company Areva itself says the EPRs planned for India are unlikely to be commissioned before 2021 at the earliest. The two Russian VVER reactors at Koodankulam have been under construction for over 12 years. One of them only attained criticality last September and is operating at less than half of its capacity.

More important, reactor imports have become a fraught issue thanks to India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010. This limits liability for mishaps to a low $470 million and channels it to the operator of nuclear installations. But it gives the operator the “right of recourse” to sue the supplier for a “nuclear incident” which “has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employee, which includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects or sub-standard services”.

Put simply, foreign reactor manufacturers are not let completely off the liability hook. This is unacceptable to US, French and Russian manufacturers and governments. They have been intensely lobbying the Indian government for a clean exemption from liability. Attempts are under way to dilute or bypass the law. These have not succeeded so far.

The Indian government has written the rules under the Act in such a way as will reduce supplier liability. But these violate the spirit of the original Act, and have been questioned in Parliament. There is also talk of NPCIL voluntarily forswearing the right of recourse when it signs contracts with foreign suppliers. This too is unlikely to go unchallenged in Parliament or the courts.

Such attempts will encounter political opposition because the law emerged as a compromise package after a fierce debate in a Parliamentary committee, which included the opposition parties. Prominent among them were the Communist Left and some Centrist parties which oppose diluting liability while citing the experience of the Bhopal disaster case.

Serious disputes have also arisen between NPCIL and Areva over the size and price of the EPRs earmarked for the Jaitapur site in Maharashtra. These may further delay the signing of a commercial agreement even if the liability issue is resolved.
 

Rising Anti-nuclear Sentiments

A major and growing obstacle to the construction of new reactors in India is rising public opposition based on safety and environmental grounds. People have become acutely aware of nuclear power’s inherent hazards: exposure to harmful radiation at all stages of the so-called nuclear fuel cycle; routine releases of toxic emissions and effluents; difficulty of safely storing nuclear waste which remains active for thousands of years; and vulnerability to catastrophic accidents, highlighted by the Fukushima triple meltdown beginning March 2011.

Such opposition has long existed around nuclear sites: For instance, there have been protests against the Koodankulam plant since 1989 and uranium mining in Jaduguda (Jharkhand) since the early 1990s. But the opposition has become more informed, active, articulate and resolute since Fukushima, which unlike Chernobyl, received mass television coverage. Even illiterates got to know about the disaster. Shocked Indians concluded that if an industrially advanced society like Japan could not control nuclear hazards, then backward India’s fate could be even worse if a nuclear accident occurred.
 

Inconsistent and Untransparent Institutions

What galled many was the cavalier attitude of India’s nuclear establishment towards nuclear safety reflected in its deplorable playing down of the gravity of the Fukushima accident. Thus, just when the accident took a turn for the worse with multiple hydrogen explosions on March 12-14, 2011, top DAE officials dismissed these as a “purely chemical reaction”, and not an indication of serious core damage and an aggravated “nuclear emergency” [3].

This was of a piece with India’s appalling nuclear safety record, marked by massive leaks of radiation and heavy water, fires, collapse of critical safety systems (like a protective reactor dome at Kaiga), poor storage and transportation practices, nuclear waste-dumping, and exposing thousands of people, including the lay public, to radiation and other poisons well above permissible limits.

The DAE has persistently failed to learn lessons from past mishaps and instead evolve a culture of safety. NPCIL and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) blatantly violate their own safety norms and rules — for instance, the stipulation that there must be “zero population” within a 1.5-km radius of a reactor. But at least 20,000 people live in such a zone around the Koodanlulam site. Also breached was the AERB rule that no fuel be loaded in a reactor unless a full emergency evacuation drill is conducted involving the entire population in a 16-km area, with commandeered vehicles operating on designated routes.

India does not have an independent nuclear safety regulator. The AERB functions under the Atomic Energy Commission, whose chairman is also the secretary of its executive arm, the DAE. The AERB has no personnel, equipment or budget of its own, but is totally dependent on the DAE. NPCIL, which operates reactors, and is meant to be regulated by the AERB, is a wholly-owned DAE subsidiary. This relationship is deeply collusive.

The AERB has been gravely indicted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for its lack of autonomy and for failing to fulfil its mandate to evolve and enforce safety standards for decades. Former AERB chairman A Gopalakrishnan has called it the DAE a “toothless poodle”. The DAE, NPCIL and AERB defy accountability to Parliament and the public. They are shielded by the Atomic Energy Act 1962, which empowers them to hide any information they like.
 

Political Pressure from Public Opposition

This combination of factors has recently fuelled intense public opposition to nuclear power. All designated new reactor sites — including coastal ones at Mithi-Virdi (Gujarat), Jaitapur (Maharashtra), Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh) and Haripur (West Bengal), and inland sites like Gorakhpur (Haryana), Chutka (Madhya Pradesh) and Mahi-Banswara (Rajasthan) — have witnessed protests both against forcible land acquisition under a 1894 colonial law, and against the plants themselves, on safety grounds.

The government has demonised these protests as “misguided” and used brute force against them, violating human rights and civil liberties. The most notable instance is the mass-scale peaceful Koodankulam agitation, with daily protests sustained over several years, where hundreds of people have been falsely charged with sedition, waging war against the state, attempt to murder, and rioting.

A remarkable development is the emergence and growth of national-level coordination among these site-specific movements, especially after Fukushima. This led to the adoption of the Indian People’s Charter on Nuclear Energy at a broad-based activist conference in Ahmedabad in July 2013, and a National Convention of Anti-Nuclear Movements near Koodankulam in January 2014.

These demand an immediate moratorium on all proposed nuclear projects; suspension of land acquisition; a high-level citizens’ commission to examine the appropriateness, desirability, safety, environmental soundness, costs and long-term problems of nuclear power, which includes independent experts, social scientists and civil society representatives; an open, democratic national debate on nuclear energy and alternatives to it; and baseline health and environmental surveys in all relevant areas by independent experts, whose results must be shared with the local public [4].

The government may not be able to ignore and crush this growing opposition. Protest is likely to be especially vigorous against imported reactors, which the Left and some Centrist parties vocally oppose [5]. Some of India’s best-known public intellectuals like Arundhati Roy, Ramachandra Guha, Romila Thapar and Ashis Nandy, besides some leading scientists, have also expressed solidarity with the anti-nuclear movement.

A Future for Nuclear Energy?

India does not have enough uranium to sustain a large-scale indigenous conventional nuclear programme. Its much-touted three-stage programme, based on fast-breeders followed by thorium reactors, is likely to prove a chimera [6]. Fast-breeders have failed everywhere. And thorium reactors have not been proven viable on a pilot, leave alone industrial, scale. If reactor imports are prevented or greatly delayed, the nuclear lobby could lose some of its momentum.

More positively, as renewable energy is promoted under India’s ambitious solar and wind power programmes, and as alternative sources are installed on a substantial scale, the case for nuclear power will get progressively weakened. Renewable energy costs are rapidly falling and becoming competitive with fossil fuels in India. But nuclear power costs are rising to a point — e.g. four times higher than power from wind turbines — where it could soon price itself out.

If the ruling United Progressive Alliance returns to power in the coming national elections, nuclear power could get a short-term boost. If a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government wins the elections, at least some reactor imports might be stalled. BJP ally Shiv Sena opposes the Jaitapur project. This will complicate matters and delay construction.

If a government led by the regional parties comes to power, including the debutant Aam Aadmi Party (some of whose leaders oppose nuclear power), the prospect for nuclear power expansion will probably dim significantly, especially if a comprehensive energy audit is conducted.

References:

[1] These range from 20,000 MW by 2020, and 63,000 MW for 2032 (under the Planning Commission’s Integrated Energy Policy), to a huge 470,000 MW to 650,000 MW by 2050. (Aspects of India's Economy No. 48, accessed 15/1/2014).)

[2] See also the Statement by Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, Chairmann of the Atomic Energy Commission. But on January 13, 2014, while laying the foundation stone for a new nuclear project in Haryana, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that India would have a nuclear capacity of 27,000 MW “over the next 10 years”. The origin and basis of this target remain unclear.

[3] Quoted in Praful Bidwai, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, Orient BlackSwan, 2012, p 265.

[4] For details, and for information on anti-nuclear movements, visit www.dianuke.org and cndpindia.org.

[5] In 2011, these parties set up a National Committee in Solidarity with the Jaitapur Struggle against French reactors. While the Communist parties do not oppose the first two Koodankulam reactors, for which a contract was signed during the Soviet period, they strongly oppose further reactor imports from Russia, France and the US, consequent to the US-India nuclear deal.

[6] For details, see MV Ramana, The Power of Promise, Penguin/Viking, 2012.
 

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