A peek into history of importing nuclear reactors by India

It may 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 by Government of India? The 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 village located on the shores 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 ( India and France) leadership had identical views on freedom from safeguards, contrary to US objective to aggressively push for these controls, even as early as 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 some very strong lobbying for sale by US Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) Chairman and Noble Laureate Dr. Glenn Seaborg. Dr. Seaborg was also a good friend of Dr. Homi Bhabha, but differed with Dr. Bhabha on safeguards issues for reactor supply. Eventually it was the diluted safeguards and low cost that won the day for AEE and GE reactor was selected. Indian government bought Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) fueled 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 KUDAMKULAM:  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.Shopping Addiction

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 delivered by 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, in the state of Tamil-Nadu, Unit 1 of 1000 MW capacity went into commercial operation by 31st December 2014 and Unit 2 of 1000 MW capacity is likely to go on line by early 2016.


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