The Government of India through the Department of Atomic (DAE) is managing the Indian Nuclear Power Program. DAE over the decades has been employing standard logic to justify the relevance of nuclear power generation in India. This logic consists of highlighting the limitation of burning coal for thermal plants, hydro potential being limited by nature; gas and oil as fuel for power generation are to be imported causing unending and heavy burden on economy. The renewable energy is a good option but not available as base load for the grid etc. Strictly speaking, DAE was never in need of any of these arguments as they (DAE) have had practically free run to manage the Indian Nuclear Power program, since its inception – early fifties.
I always had a different take on the reasons for going for nuclear power generation in India. Nuclear technology is an esoteric business. It takes a lot of funding, years to prepare highly trained manpower and building solid foundations of institutional learning spread over decades, in order to master nuclear technology. India had attained this stage by mid-nineties, after toiling for many decades. This has not come easy for the country.
To get a perspective let us take a peek into the history of evolution of nuclear power generation since late fifties. In the year 1963, fierce competition to supply nuclear reactors to DAE was going on among three countries viz., France, UK and Canada. But one fine day US government offered $ 200 Million of funds under USAID at low rates of interest (@2%), deferred payment (repayment would start 10 years after commercial power generation) and term loan payable in 30 years, to buy the Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) from USA. Dr. Homi Baha singed the deal under 123 agreement between India and US. A consortium of GE, Combustion Engineering, Bechtel and others were given the order for installing first ever nuclear power plant in India. In October 1969 the 2×210 MW units were put into commercial operation at Tarapur, Maharashtra State. However, these units were built as Turnkey projects with minimal participation by Indian engineers and scientists.
Dr. Bhaha had chosen Canadian technology as mainstay for India before he died in the unfortunate air crash in the French Alps, in January 1966. As a result of his choice, no more reactors were purchased from USA. The next in line were bought from Canada. Canadian designed and built 2×200 MW Pressurized Heavy Water type nuclear plants at Kota in Rajasthan during mid-seventies were based on a partnership of sorts between the two countries. But, one fine day Canadians quit the project in 1974 following the Canadian government directive to their nuclear experts, when peaceful nuclear explosion was conducted during Indira Gandhi government in May 1974. Indian Scientists and Engineers that were under the apprenticeship of Canadian team were left high and dry. Unit 1 was commissioned by 16 December 1973 but the Indian engineers took some additional number of years to overcome the sudden set back and managed to commission the second unit by 1st April1981, on their own.
The fate of mid-seventies compelled India to indigenize nuclear technology. It was a Herculean task that required capacity development of domestic engineering knowledge, developing local manufacturing and management skills to design, build and operate nuclear power plants to very demanding and exacting global standards.
Today we have 21 nuclear reactors in operation at 7 locations in India. Another 6 reactors are under construction. This huge cumulative experience and 300 years of reactor operation are now handy with the Indian government. Very few countries in the world can claim to possess this kind of front end technology (Uranium mining and nuclear fuel fabrication) to back end experience (fuel reprocessing to mainly recover Plutonium, waste disposal and management of high level radioactive waste from reprocessed fuel) of nuclear power generation business. Given this background, India should capitalize on nuclear technology option with dispatch.
Climate change is the most compelling logic to pursue nuclear power generation for India today. Economics of power generation, though it is important but, secondary in nature. We cannot leave legacy of polluted atmosphere by burning coal, gas and oil to meet our current energy needs and not bother about the future generation. It is our duty and DAE has to contribute in significant and speedy way to fulfill this obligation. Climate change has arrived long ago on global scene, there has been a paradigm shift in the energy landscape due to international concerns and compulsions; rapidly exploiting nuclear power is a must for India.