India’s Nuclear Future: Dr. M R Srnivasan

Dr. M.R.Srinivasan, Former Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission of India

Honest truths, hard facts, and criticisms on India’s nuclear program rang aloud this Wednesday at the Nehru Center in Mumbai, India. These words came neither from an armchair critic nor an environmentalist, but from the man who once headed India’s nuclear program and is still associated with it. He is none other than Dr. M.R.Srinivasan, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) between 1987 and 1990, and current AEC member, who was there to give a presentation entitled Future of Nuclear Power after Fukushima. The presentation marked the first Dr. H. N. Sethna Memorial Lecture, named after Dr. Sethna, a former chief of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission who died in September 2010.

Speaking to Asian Scientist Magazine on the sidelines of the event, Dr. Srinivasan discussed topics that spanned from Pakistan’s move to strengthen its nuclear arsenal, to competition from China.


On Pakistan expanding its nuclear arsenal

Dr. Srinivasan: Yes we have to keep watching the situation. The military rules the country and they want the bomb.

Expressing deep concern about the expansion and strengthening of Pakistan’s nuclear program, he regretted that the leverage of the US in this matter was very minimal, failing to exercise much influence on Pakistan in forcing it to reduce its atomic weapons.

Two investigative reports have revealed Pakistan’s nuclear expansion. A book written by two investigative reporters, Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, called Nuclear Deception, describes how the US secretly backed Pakistan’s nuclear weaponization program while keeping a public posture of opposition to it. Another report in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said that Pakistan will have 150 to 200 nuclear warheads in a decade – the world’s fastest growing nuclear stockpile.

Asked if there was a danger of Pakistani extremists taking over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, Dr. Srinivasan gave a measured response.

Dr. Srinivasan: I do not want to ring an alarm, but such a danger does exist because of various factors.

On India’s nuclear submarine program

Dr. Srinivasan: The Department of Atomic Energy’s Rare Material Plant at Ratnahalli, near Mysore, is being further expanded to cater to India’s nuclear submarine program.

The first indigenous nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, sailed into the waters at Vishakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh in July 2009 and is currently undergoing sea trials. It is expected to be commissioned into the Indian Navy by the end of the year. Four submarines of a similar class will be commissioned into the Indian Navy by 2015.

The indigenous n-submarines have pressurized heavy water reactors designed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Center. The final production version was built by the Indira Gandhi Center For Atomic Research at Kalpakkam, near Chennai.

The submarines use enriched uranium which is fabricated at the Rare Material Plant.

On India’s ‘opposition for opposition sake’

Dr. Srinivasan: The world watches China’s achievements with wonder and we in India with envy. Yet we have not evolved methods to resolve difficult questions through reason and dialogue.

We waste far too much energy on futile debates and street demonstrations. There is no reason why we have not replaced the land acquisition act of the British period with a more balanced one that takes note of present conditions.

Lots of land has been acquired by the government from poor people at very low compensation and to make matters worse the monies are not paid promptly. In some coal mining projects, the same group of people have been uprooted more than once.

Some forty years ago, India celebrated when a new dam, steel plant, power plant, fertilizer plant, or a canal system was built. Now we seem to celebrate every time a steel plant, aluminum plant, or power plant is stopped.

Let us look at our civilized neighbor – China. They take pride in the fact that they have built the biggest dam across the Yangtse, the Beijing-Lhasa railway, the Beijing-Shanghai fast train (1300 km in 5 hours), and the longest bridge of 36 km between their main land and an island and so forth.

India is not meeting its energy needs fast enough

Dr. Srinivasan: Not only is the total quantity small, the ore concentration is also low, extraction too is more costly in India than in Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, and some countries of Africa.

Our resources are in Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh, and a smaller one in Karnataka. We started mining activities in Jharkhand in the late 1960’s. We are in the process of constructing a mine in Andhra Pradesh. In Meghalaya, we are facing difficulties in opening the mines due to tribal customs on ownership of lands. Efforts are being made to overcome the problem. In Karnataka, mining is due to commence soon.

India’s electricity generating capacity has been growing over the years, mostly coal-based and hydro, with some contribution from gas and small contributions from nuclear and wind. India and China both had an installed capacity of about 2000 MW in 1950, but India is struggling to reach 200,000 MW and China has already surpassed 800,000 MW.

Some studies relating to the energy needs of India by 2052 show that the electricity requirement could be about 1300 GW. This could be 40 percent coal-based, using clean coal technologies, 40 percent nuclear, and 20 percent renewable.

We may note that at present France is producing 75 to 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. In Korea it is 40 percent. Japan has 30 percent from nuclear, though what it will be in future in the context of Fukushima is uncertain. The US has 20 percent nuclear on a rather large overall capacity and has a big contribution from gas (lately shale gas).

China has the largest generation capacity, after the US. At present, a large percent is coal-based. China’s carbon emissions have exceeded that of the US, even though on a per capita basis, it is about one-fourth. China has the biggest nuclear plant construction program at present, and while they will undoubtedly review their safety practices in the light of the Japanese experience, they will probably continue to develop nuclear power in a big way.

On India’s status as a nuclear power

Dr. Srinivasan: The Pokhran II nuclear weapon tests of 1998 conferred on India the status of a de-facto nuclear weapon power, outside of the original five – the US, the UK, France, China, and Russia.

At present India has 20 operating nuclear power units, the others who have more than 20 are the US, France, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear program, entrusted the challenging task of building a reprocessing plant to Homi Sethna. The crowning achievement of Sethna’s remarkable career was the Pokhran I test of 18 May 1974 when India demonstrated its ability to conduct a nuclear explosion.

Following this test, the US, Canada, and some other countries embargoed supply of materials or equipment required for India’s nuclear program. This was a major challenge and resulted in delays in building nuclear power stations, heavy water plants and fuel fabricating facilities, and in research and development projects.

The forced isolation led to creation of wide ranging capabilities by Indian industries which geared up to supply all the materials and equipment from within the country.

India’s latest nuclear projects

Dr. Srinivasan: Although India had 20 nuclear power units under operation, the total nuclear power capacity is small because most of the units had a capacity of 220 MW. The Tarapur 3 and 4 units, built to our own designs, were the largest at present, at 540 MW.

In the next couple of months, we will start our first 1000 MW nuclear plant at Kudankulam, Tamilnadu, built with Russian cooperation. A second such plant will enter in to service next year. In the past year or so, we have started construction of four reactors of 700 MW capacity of our own design, two at Kakrapara (Gujarat), and two at Rawatbhatta (Rajasthan).

We expect to build some more 700 MW reactors, of this standard design, at some new sites in Madhya Pradesh and Haryana and possibly as extension at Kaiga (Karnataka).

The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) of 500 MW capacity at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu is in an advanced stage of construction and is expected to be ready to receive fuel by the end of 2012. This will be our first major step in the second stage of the three stage Indian nuclear program. This will be followed by four more 500 MW FBRs, two to be located at Kalpakkam (near Chennai), and two at another site.

This program is currently the most important breeder reactor program anywhere in the world. We are building an integrated reprocessing facility, a fuel refabrication facility and a waste immobilization facility at Kalpakkam. Such a complex will ensure that the spent fuel does not have to be transported out of site and the recycle activities are all carried at one site only, thus ensuring high level of safety.

To initiate the third stage of the program, nuclear scientists in India have designed an Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) of 300 MW capacity which can be fueled with thorium. This reactor may go in to operation by 2017 and will probably be the first large reactor using thorium, anywhere in the world.

On the use of thorium in Indian nuclear reactors

Dr. Srinivasan: Many people in India have asked why India is not speeding up the use of thorium as a fuel in Indian nuclear reactors. The reason is that thorium by itself is not a nuclear fuel, It is called a fertile material. We need plutonium, uranium-235, or uranium-233 to start a reactor using thorium. In a reactor, thorium gets converted in to uranium-233, which is a nuclear fuel.

Although India will build thorium-based reactors in the decade of 2020, significant numbers of such reactors can be built only after 2030.

It is important to have a large capacity of fast breeder reactors so that adequate quantity of plutonium is available to start the thorium systems.

On foreign vs. locally made nuclear reactors

Dr. Srinivasan: Some may wonder why India should import nuclear power plants when the country is already building a number of them indigenously.

We have hitherto built small reactors (220 MW and 540 MW) and now we are standardizing a size of 700 MW. India-designed reactors using heavy water require a small amount of fresh fuel to be loaded into the reactor every day and an equivalent amount of spent fuel to be taken out of the reactor daily. We have evolved satisfactory equipment and procedures for doing this safely.

In contrast, Light Water Reactors (LWR) used in US, France, Japan, Russia, and Korea have an output of 1000 to 1650 MW and need to be loaded with fresh fuel only once in twelve or eighteen months. The fuel is low enriched uranium. Some 80 per cent of all nuclear power plant in the world are LWRs.

India is in an advanced stage of negotiations with Russia to build more reactors at Kudankulam, which can accommodate four more units in addition to the first two, and which are now in an advanced stage of execution.

We are negotiating with France to build six 1650 MW reactors, in a phased manner, at Jaitapur, near Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. We are also discussing with the American reactor builders, Westinghouse and General Electric, regarding constructing reactors of their design at two coastal sites, one in Gujarat and another in Andhra Pradesh. These discussions are less advanced than is the case with Russia and France.

India intends to import some 20,000 to 30,000 MW of Light Water reactors from Russia, France, and the US in the time period from now to 2030. India would like to have a total nuclear capacity of 50,000 to 60,000 MW by 2030.

So we will continue to build more PHWRs (pressurized heavy water reactors) of our own design with some of them using imported natural uranium.

We will no doubt intensify exploration for uranium in India and maximize local production. We also expect to acquire stake in developing uranium reserves in friendly countries and thus increase the total quantity of uranium available for our program.

On Japan’s Fukushima accident and the future of nuclear power

Dr. Srinivasan: It could take as long as 10 years to decontaminate the site. It may take up to 20 years to clean up Fukushima city. The four units (1 to 4) of Daiichi are naturally a write-off.

Around that time, Japanese earth scientists found out that a number of tsunami of great height, up to 30 meters or more had earlier struck the coast of Japan. Unfortunately, Tokyo Electric Power Company dismissed these warnings.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel announced that Germany, which produces about 25 percent of its electricity from nuclear, would phase out its nuclear units by 2022. It is hoping to increase renewables like wind and solar, and to invest heavily on conservation.

Italy and Switzerland announced that they would shelve plans to embark on new nuclear units. But there are many countries with sizeable number of nuclear units and shutting them down is simply not an option.

The US, France, Korea, and Russia have a large number of nuclear units which supply a good proportion of electricity. China and India are planning to add nuclear capacity rapidly.

Should India do away with nuclear energy?

Dr. Srinivasan: What we need is to learn all the lessons from Fukushima and make our reactors safer and more reliable. It is important that public confidence which has been shaken is restored by making the presently operating ones and those to be built in the future as safe as humanly possible.

A question may arise: “If Germany can do without nuclear energy, why should India need it?” Also, it is possible that Japan which has 54 nuclear reactors may decide on phasing out nuclear energy.

Japan has a special problem which is that most of Japan is visited by severe earthquakes. Also on the eastern coast, they have active seismic epicenters which when erupted may release severe tsunami waves.

Fortunately, most of India has low seismic activity compared to Japan. All Indian sites have a seismic intensity less than seven on the Richter scale – an intensity one hundredth of the earthquake that hit Fukushima, which is very important to bear this in mind.

Moreover, industrial societies like Germany, Japan, US, and others have already built up their infrastructure, which is energy intensive. So now they can manage to reduce their energy consumption and possibly face the future with renewable and conservation.

Developing countries like India and China, with large populations and large developmental deficits to be made good, will need to use nuclear energy, but of course with all safety measures taken, and under strict regulation.

On the Jaitapur controversy

About the controversial French-aided plans to construct nuclear power plants at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Dr. Srinivasan said he would like to share with this audience that he was responsible for selecting this site, following a visit in 1984.

Dr. Srinivasan: There is a high table land some 20 to 30 meters above the sea level and there was no cultivation in that piece of land. Of course grass grows there and is harvested for fodder. There were no dwellings located on the land. Hence this is an ideal site.

There would be no effluents which could affect the mango orchards or the fishing activity. We have actual experience at Tarapur and Kalpakkam and at neither of these places has there been an adverse impact on marine life. Similarly, Kakrapar (Gujarat) and Kaiga (Karnataka) have shown that the ecology of the area is unaffected. The question of compensation for lands that are acquired is a matter that has to be decided by the state government.

While we may fully support wind and solar options, they simply will be inadequate or uneconomic compared to nuclear power. Sometimes, our environmental activists consider all of us involved in industrial activities as ‘anti-national people’ and confer on themselves all patriotism.

As a person who has spent some five and a half decades in developing nuclear power under difficult conditions, I consider this value judgment of our environmental activists completely unacceptable.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.

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