Dr. A Gopalakrishnan | Courtesy: The Citizen

An overall evaluation of the status of the Indian civilian nuclear power sector, and the government’s uncertain future plans, do cause a great deal of concern for the welfare of the country and the safety of our people. Therefore, it is best to freeze all plans for the further expansion of this sector until Parliament and the public are provided full details of the government’s intentions and rationale and a national consensus is reached.

Background: The Indian civilian nuclear power program is ultimately administered by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) which reports to the Prime Minister.

The detailed policies, programs, and projects of both the civilian and military aspects of atomic energy are overseen and approved by a supra-powerful body called the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The AEC currently has fourteen members, including its Chairman and a non-Member as Secretary. Members include the Principal Secretary to the PM, National Security Adviser, Cabinet Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Secretary (Finance & Dept. of Expenditure). Few of the past AEC Chairman and a couple of other former government scientists are also Members.

Once this group approves a program or gives a decision, no other entity like the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG), who should be overseeing financial propriety in the Central Government expenditure or the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) which is responsible for project & public safety, will usually dare to question the AEC decision. This top-heavy administration of the nuclear program and the fear that it exudes is at the heart of most of the ailments of the nuclear sector.

Civilian Nuclear Program: In the almost 70 years since the constitution of our AEC in 1948, the total installed capacity of nuclear power in India has reached only 6,780 MWe, comprising 22 nuclear reactors. With a total installed electricity capacity of 315,426 MWe in the country, the nuclear share is thus a minuscule 2.15 % of it.

Of the 22 operating power reactors, 16 are nominal 220 MWe Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) and two are 540 MWe upgrades of this design. Besides, there are four reactors of foreign origin under operation – two Mark-1 Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) of de-rated 160 MWe capacity and two Russian VVERs of 1000 MWe each. Of the operating reactors, some are very old and partially disabled and others are of dangerously outdated design which DAE is continuing to operate, though recommended by the original supplier to be permanently closed down.

Craze for Foreign Reactors: Following the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests by the then BJP government, a series of Indo-US talks were held and a US-India foreign policy team worked steadily to reach a compromise solution by the two nations to settle the nuclear non-proliferation issues. These efforts continued during the subsequent UPA government under Dr. Manmohan Singh.

As part of the Indo-US nuclear Deal, India agreed in writing to purchase about 10,000 MWe of US power reactors and a similar package of French reactors, in return for the support of US & France at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). The NSG ultimately permitted India to retain part of its military nuclear facilities outside of IAEA safeguards, while being allowed to place the rest under safeguards and regular international inspection. Through the associated passage of the Hyde Act by the US Congress, India was denied its freedom to conduct any further nuclear weapon tests in the future.

Under the deal, while India is free to purchase nuclear reactors, equipment and materials from abroad for facilities under safeguards, we are also denied the NSG clearance to import technologies and equipment related to uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing.

Preliminary agreements were discussed with Westinghouse Corporation and the General Electric Co. of the US, as well as with Areva of France as early as in 2009-2010, for purchasing their large light-water reactors (LWRs) which were then under development.

We are still waiting for the very first 1000 MWe AP-1000 reactor of Westinghouse and the very first 1650 MWe European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) of Areva to be commissioned anywhere in the world. In the meantime, the Westinghouse Co. has filed for bankruptcy in the US and Areva is in the middle of serious technical &financial difficulties, because of which the company has been sold to the French national electricity utility EDF.

However, even before the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed, we had started building two VVER-1000 reactors with Russian collaboration, which have since been commissioned at Kudankulam in South India. The initial performance of the first of these two reactors is still not satisfactory , and the BJP had then agreed that apprehensions of the local population about the plant were genuine and the Centre should address the public’s issues . Notwithstandingthis, thegovernment had entered into an agreement to purchase four (4) more VVER reactors to be set up in the same site at Kudankulam.

Swimming against the tide: The Fukushima disaster following a major earthquake in Japan in March 2011, which resulted in the meltdown of three reactors, was a watershed which transformed the world’s outlook towards electricity generation. The Japanese Parliament appointed a senior independent commission to go into all aspects of the disaster and submit a report to them.

This committee criticized several years of collusion between the nuclear power company TEPCO, national nuclear regulators and politicians and described the disaster as man-made and avoidable. Out of 54 nuclear reactors operating in Japan before the accident, at present there are only 4 which are in operation. In October 2017, the Fukushima clean-up & compensation cost estimates stand at Australian dollars 245 billion (Indian Rupees 12.2 lakh crores)! These are the enormous costs which Japan will have to bear for its neglect of independent nuclear safety regulation; for the collusion between its regulators, nuclear plant owners and politicians.

Post-Fukushima accident, such realities gave a spurt to shunning nuclear power generation and motivated several countries to seriously consider setting up renewable electricity systems in their countries. At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, Indian PM Modi also pledged that by 2022, India would set up 175 GW of renewable electric systems – 100 GW Solar, 60 MW Wind, 10 GW from Biomass and 5 GW from Small Hydro.

It should be noted that the delivered unit costs of electricity from solar, wind and other modes of renewable power generation have been falling rapidly in recent years and the PM’s decision could be timely for India. In India, as on March 31, 2017, the total installed solar electric power is 12,288 MW and the total installed wind power capacity is 32,280 MW. As of today, we seem to be on track to achieve PM Modi’s challenging target of 175 GW renewable powers by 2022. [Note that these MW numbers have to be associated with respective system load factors of — roughly 16-19% for solar, 20-23 % for on-shore wind and 30-41 % for off-shore wind, to obtain real-term busbar electricity one gets].

World is Abandoning Nuclear Power: Some of the countries, presently relying partly on nuclear power, are in the process of lowering or shedding the nuclear power component from their current portfolios. In France, for example, a law enacted in 2015 requires that the country should reduce nuclear power generation from the current figure of 75 % to 50% of the aggregate by 2025. This will mean shutting down 17 of the 58 nuclear reactors which their major utility EDF is presently operating.

It is, however, not finally confirmed that France will adhere to the 2025 deadline.Taiwan, on the other hand, is definite that all nuclear power in that country will be phased out by 2025. Japan has 54 nuclear reactors of which only 4 are operational now after the Fukushima accident. In view of the serious opposition by local governments and the nearby population, and in view of the tightened safety regulations, not more than 8 more reactors are likely to be re-started. In Russia, Rosatom’s Deputy General Director said in June 2017, that the world market for new nuclear plants is shrinking and possibilities for building new large reactors abroad are almost exhausted.

As against the above world trend, India appears to be blindly proceeding in the opposite direction. On May 17 2017, India’s Union Cabinet approved the construction of 10 more 700 MWe PHWRs, in addition to four of the same kind which are presently approved for construction. The government press release says, “…With likely manufacturing orders of close to Rs. 70,000 crores to the domestic industry…it will be a major step toward strengthening India’s credentials as a major nuclear manufacturing powerhouse”.

But, with the whole world receding from setting up nuclear plants, by the time this “major powerhouse” is established in 4-6 years, where are the foreign orders for nuclear plant components going to come from? Or, are we planning to use tax-payers’ money to continually prop up the ailing big manufacturing industries in India by giving them nuclear power orders, whether we want nuclear power or not?

Won’t Dump Westinghouse and Areva Reactors? The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), DAE and the government appear to be still entertaining periodic proposals and discussions regarding the purchase of the AP-1000 and the EPR reactors. No reactor of either kind has been started anywhere in the world. Today, China is regretting their foray into setting up two French EPRs and four AP-1000 reactors.

In China, where the national organisations had taken on the task of engineering, procurement and construction of both these type of reactors, they have found that both of these are difficult to build. According to the Chinese, who are any day far more experienced in constructing large LWRs than the Indians, they faced several unique quality and construction planning issues which were indicative of the complexity of the AP-1000 and EPR designs. The National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), which is the equivalent of AERB in China, has stated that local construction company engineers failed to generate the necessary test procedures and acceptance criteria because of their lack of understanding of the reactor or system designs, which hampered quality control in all phases of construction and commissioning.

Now, EDF, which owns Areva, has insisted during their meetings with NPCIL, DAE and others in July 2017 ,that NPCIL should take care of all construction work. The EDF side said they will take care of the engineering part of the work and a large chunk of foreign procurement of equipment. NPCIL, however, responded that EDF must take full responsibility for Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC).

Similarly, a senior representative told NPCIL and DAE that Westinghouse’s plans to set up six AP-1000 reactors in India are contingent on a change in the Nuclear Liability Law. He also said that Westinghouse will no longer take up the risk of building new nuclear plants and instead specialise in supplying parts and reactor engineering. Dr. Sekhar Basu, Secretary DAE, said last month that the Kovaada project in Andhra can still go ahead with Westinghouse supplying the reactor design and a different company taking up the construction. Everyone in the Indian nuclear establishment brims with confidence that India is capable of executing the detailed engineering, construction and commissioning of the complicated AP-1000 reactors in India without any assistance from abroad!

Nuclear Safety in Jeopardy: My personal involvement in nuclear safety seriously started in mid-1961 when I was enrolled as a doctoral student at the Department of Nuclear Engineering in the University of California at Berkeley, USA. After getting my M.S and PhD degrees, I was selected to join the U.S Atomic Energy Commission’s Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), in their Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-II) Project related to sodium-cooled fast reactor development.Before returning to India, I worked in a senior position at the US nuclear industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in their Nuclear Power Division.

I returned to India permanently in 1976 to take up a job in Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL).Incidentally, while I was AERB Chairman, in 1994, I served as the Chairman of the 15-nation International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Drafting Committee to finalise the International Convention on Nuclear Safety. This Convention has since then come into force and India is also a member.

The views expressed in this article are based on this overall 56-year experience and exposure of mine, which includes also my intimate understanding and participation in the Indian nuclear program.

The state of nuclear reactor safety in India today is suboptimal to say the least. The agency which should be overseeing nuclear safety in India, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), has no standing as an independent entity, no direct access to the AEC or to any of the Parliamentary committees. The Chairman of the AERB reports to the AEC Chairman, whose instructions finally dictate the AERB’s actions. In contrast, the French nuclear regulatory body (the ASN) is created under a separate Act of the French Parliament and is answerable only to their Parliament.

To summarise the state of nuclear safety in India and suggest possible corrective actions, an article in a journal will not suffice, it will require one whole book to be devoted to it. But, the sad commentary of that approach is that such a book will have very limited readership, and therefore may not have the desired effect in changing public opinion.

Concluding Remarks: I wish to close this article merely with the citing of two important references. The first is an article I wrote in March 1999 in the Frontline magazine , which brings out several safety issues which existed at that time. Though 18 years have lapsed since that date, problems have only further accumulated and safety concerns have only increased.

The second important referenceI want to bring to the readers is an excerpt of the excellent interview that the senior independent European reporter Ms. Noopur Tiwari conducted with Mr. Pierre-FrankChevet, President of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN). He openly admitted that there is a serious anomaly in the Flamanville EPR they are building in France, which could call for a very early replacement of its pressure vessel. He admitted that the EPR has had problems with all constructions. He has said, “We even had problems related to cement — everything needs to be tested for quality, from manufacturers to sevice providers. The stakes are huge.”

When directly asked, “Who should be held responsible in case of an accident? “His answer was unambiguous. He said, “The responsibility is first and foremost with the nuclear operator, whether it is the design, construction or anything else. In India, it would be the NPCIL (which will be responsible).”

Finally, when asked, “How important is the independence of any nuclear safety regulatory agency?” his answer was “Extremely essential”. ASN was created in 2006 by a law as independent from all stakeholders – especially from the government, the operators and even the NGOs. By law, ASN is answerable only to the Parliament and to the people. Our role is to look into safety; not to be pro- or anti-nuclear”.