Export of Nuclear Power Plants by India


Stepping Out

Stepping Out

Recently International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General (DG) stated that nearly 50 countries have expressed interest in introducing nuclear energy component for commercial power generation in their national kitty. According to Mr. Elbaradei, the IAEA DG, it would take at least 10 years or more of preparation and capacity development to absorb the power generation technology and massive investment in infrastructure to be developed around nuclear technology by a new entrant. Evolution of legal, fiscal, Nuclear Regulatory framework, qualified manpower, energy planning, financial resources etc are critical elements for nuclear power program. Those who have more than cursory interest can refer to the IAEA compiled short document, April 2007 that describes the considerations to implement a nuclear power program and it is accessible on their web site. Given the long entry period, preparatory groundwork and sustenance cost, it is anybody’s guess that only a handful of them would eventually take serious steps, if any, to import nuclear power plants for commercial purposes.

Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) under Government of India through its public sector unit called Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) has operating capacity of 4120 MW and a total of 17 reactors are today generating commercial power. The thought process to consider export of its flagship technology of Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) of 220 MW unit capacity is not completely misplaced. The idea is also backed by several other attributes that NPC has attained over years such as nearly 300 years reactor operating experience, a large corpus of trained design, construction, commissioning engineers. Today NPC has about 9000 engineers; scientists and technical employees out of total its total strength of 1200 employees. System of inducting high grade technical manpower, maturing of totally indigenous nuclear program with local manufacturing capabilities and back up of the Indian industry, regulatory & institutional framework etc are key qualifications. The Indian as well as global operating and safety experience of PHWR is good worldwide and it is proven to work very well as base load station from the grid management point of view. The 220 MW capacity reactors are just the right size for new comers in this field for their relatively small size electricity grids.

However there are many challenges for NPC. The world over PHWR type plants constitutes less than 10% share of the total variety of reactor population of over about 440 reactors in operation across the globe. PHWRs are installed in a fewer countries like Korea, China, India, Canada, Argentina, Romania etc. On the other hand the most prevalent reactor types are Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) and Boiling Water Reactor (BWR); built and perfected by USA, Japan, Russia, France and Germany etc. and populate over 30 countries worldwide. OECD countries use over 90% these types of reactors while 80% of world installed capacity is also located in OECD itself.

In this competitive technological world the moot question is why a new entrant would go for PHWR type nuclear power plants? The question is one of making industrial Choice between importing enriched Uranium as fuel for PWR and BWR type reactors for 40-50 years period vis a vis Heavy water as coolant and moderator for the Pressurized Heavy Water Rector (PHWR) nuclear power plant. PHWR employs natural Uranium as fuel but the buyer will have to import the fabricated fuel from the supplier.  In the long run if the buying country has either its own resources of Uranium or secures long term contract from Uranium producing countries than PHWR could be attractive choice. In either case the new entrant has to initially import everything from the supplier country. But in the long run it is relatively easy to localize PHWR technology over BWR or PWR varieties. Sitting on a pile of enriched Uranium as unsued feul can cause lot of tension for IAEA and supplier countires. In additon the endemic temptation to enrich Uranium on ones own has never been appreciated by Global community even if it has been perfectly leagal to do so. Iran is a good example. Therefore PHWR is best for new entrants.

It is recognised that NPC is a Utility and not a Turnkey supplier of nuclear power plants. Also the business of nuclear energy is fully controlled by Union Government (unlike conventional power which is under concurrent list in the Indian constitution) so there can’t be an private Turnkey supplier like GE of USA, Toshiba of Japan, Areva of France or Atomstroyexport RF from Russia, in the Indian domain. In India the nuclear program is supported by motley companies who provide core nuclear vessel  components like L&T, WIL, BHEL etc along with the DAE owned NFC for Fuel and Zirconium parts, ECIL for Instrumentation and Control, Heavy Water units, UCIL manufacturing the yellow cake ( Natural Uranium) etc.  NPC can actually carry out the Architect Engineer role and as a leader of the consortium carry on its shoulder support and commitments from all the Indian companies listed above (illustrative not exhaustive). Though it is somewhat complex to carry them all but not impossible.

NPC has imported VVER type reactors from Russia, 2×1000 Mw under advanced stage of construction at Kudamkulam in Tamil Nadu state. NPC knows very well what it takes to do preparatory work, obtain approvals from Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) of India, resolve international issues and develop documents before signing exhaustive commercial agreements to buy a nuclear power plant. NPC has good idea of the global costs of PWR and BWR power plants and its own plants of 540 and 220 MW capacity.This institutional knowledge base can be now harvested and matured to develop a generic model offer for 220 MW capacity unit of PHWR.  It is going to take over 2 to 3 years to develop the complete and standardized documentation, role definition of the partners like L&T, BHEL , NFC, ECIL and others, risk sharing, regulatory approvals, dedicated task force etc to market its product. 

Now that Indo US Civil Co-operation has opened the doors for international nuclear trade for India, NPC can start looking for high value international partners for its export  venture. I think it is no harm to start talking to Canadians who actually are selling their PHWR type units to Eastern European and Asian countries. Initial partnership can be restricted in terms of supplying technical expertise and skilled manpower from India. This will bring in international exposure to work as project managers and construction engineers etc for its workforce which is totally lacking in this aspect today. The scope of services can always be revised with partnership experience.

Well all that I outlined merely describes the tip of the iceberg. Behind that is lurking gagantuan but doable in-house tasks for NPC and DAE. In the current wave of revival of global interest in nuclear power generation for whatever reasons, there is a good opportunity for India to advance the idea towards becoming an exporter of nuclear power plant. Once the exports are in place the international regimes for isolating nuclear India, if ever, will be ineffectual and meaningless.  India will become sanction proof just after it clicks the first orders!


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