Recapturing India’s history of Importing Commercial Nuclear Power Plants

A telephone call was made by US President to Prime Minster of India on the evening of 25th March 2005. Events that unfolded during following two and half years in India and USA in their respective legislatures, media commentaries on Indo – US civil nuclear energy cooperation, reached a closure once US President George Bush on 8th October 2008 signed the enabling legislation number HR 7081. Later on, Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver was obtained after a substantial intervention made by US, France, Russia and UK on behalf of India to overcome the objections of several countries from Europe and South Asia in September 2008. NSG is 45 member Nations club that controls trade in civilian nuclear hardware, technology and fuel supplies. This NSG waiver was essential in order to import material, technology and services by Government of India. As of today, several Light Water Reactors (LWRs) from reputed vendors are on offer and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) along with the advice and technical expertise of Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) is engaged in the process of negotiating with France, USA and Russia.

However, it may still be of interest and historical importance to recount how first US deal in mid sixties and later on Russian deal in eighties was struck to import nuclear power plants? Indian Atomic Energy Establishment (AEE) under its first Chairman Dr. Homi Bhabha had decided to set up a commercial nuclear power plant as early as in 1958-59. A site was chosen at Tarapur on the shore of Arabian Sea, about 120 kilometers from the Bombay city, in Maharashtra state.

TARAPUR ATOMIC POWER PLANT: The group assigned this task in the then AEE, considered French versus British reactors using natural Uranium, Graphite moderated and Carbon Dioxide cooled as the most suitable for Indian context.

Once the word spread about Indian interest, several world-renowned vendors contacted the team assessing the reactor types. Even though the task force expert’s general view was veering towards natural Uranium type design, Westinghouse sent General K D Nicholls to speak to Dr. Homi Bhabha and explain techno-economic features of their Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR). Around this time General Electric (GE) was developing the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) type reactors. GE soon followed and jumped in the fray and showed up in India to make presentations to AEE.

It was after considerable persuasion by American vendors the Indian team agreed to receive their bids also for evaluation. The French reactors were in use by their national utility Electricite de France (EDF) of heavy water types and UK ones were used by Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), cooled by CO2 gas. The Canadian and US offer from General Atomic were rejected, as they were not based on mature technology. The French expert who dealt with Indian team was Mr. Claude Bienvenu. Dr. Bhabha was also a good friend of Bertrand Goldschmidt, a co-member from France in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Scientific Advisory Committee, in sixties. Both countries leadership had identical views on freedom from safeguards, contrary to US objective to aggressively push for these controls, even as early and mid-fifties.

It was at this time that General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse offers pitched in rather strongly. The main features were low cost coupled with intense lobbying for sale by US Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) Chairman and Noble Laureate Dr. Glenn Seaborg. He was also a good friend of Dr. Bhabha, but differed with him on safeguards issues for reactor supply. Eventually it was the diluted safeguards and low cost that won the day for GE. Indian government bought Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) fuelled by enriched Uranium, 2×200 Mwe capacity units for 200 million USD-estimated cost. It was funded by USAID @ 0.7% interest rate with 40 years tenure. French lost the deal.

RUSSIAN VVER AT KUDANKULAM: It is instructive to note the chequered history of Indo-USSR agreement that beset the purchase of two-unit nuclear power station at Kudamkulam, VVER type, requiring life time guarantees of low enriched Uranium fuel supplies. Negotiations were going on from mid-eighties onwards. By this time, India had already positioned itself in IAEA and UN Bodies, in a unique situation of not accepting full scope safe guards of its nuclear facilities and did not accede to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) obligations. In this context, the potential of any commercial cooperation between European and North American countries with India was practically ruled out. The then Soviet Union (USSR) was willing to supply reactors if India submitted the imported reactors to inspection and safe guards while isolating the other facilities under Indian Nuclear Power program. Dr Homi Sethna was the Chairman of DAE when it was first mooted. He did not like the idea. When Dr. Raja Rammana took over from him as Chairman of AEC, he immediately sent missions to USSR for negotiations.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minster was unfortunately assassinated on 30th October 1984 at Delhi. The Project lost a tenacious supporter and the deal went into limbo. Another blow to the credibility of Russians was the disastrous accident in the RBMK type nuclear reactor operating at Chernobyl on 26th April 1986 killing over 31 persons and costing billions of Roubles to clean up. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was the PM and had many reservations about buying Russian supplied nuclear reactors. Dr. M R Srinivasan, the then Chairman of AEC, managed to convince the Indian Prime Minister. Russian deal neither obliged India to change its NPT stance nor to sign the full scope safe guards. Cleverly, Russia formally joined NSG club after the deal with India was signed and sealed. Mikhail Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi finally signed the agreement in a glittering ceremony in November 1988 at Delhi.

At Kudamkulam, Russian Rosatom supplied VVER Unit 1 of 1000 MW capacity went into commercial operation by 1st Jan 2015 and Unit 2 is likely to go on line by early 2016.

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