The domestic nuclear manufacturing industry just got a major boost with the government announcing plans to indigenously design and build 10 Pressurized Heavy Water Rectors (PHWR) on a fast track mode.
Coming at a time when the NDA government is completing its third year in office, Union Minister of Power Piyush Goyal made the dramatic announcement in a meeting with the press.
The move is expected to give ‘Make in India’ initiative its biggest fillip yet, with the possibility of creating 33,400 direct and indirect jobs, and generate Rs 70,000 crore worth of business for the industry. The 10 nuclear reactors will be of 700 MW gross capacity each (640 MWe net) and the design will be taken up by the Department of Atomic Energy.
The 10 reactors will be manufactured at four locations – Kaiga (Karnataka), Chutka (Madhya Pradesh), Mahi Banswara (Rajasthan) and Gorakhpur (Haryana).
The news has been welcomed by companies like L&T, Kirloskar Brothers Ltd and Godrej & Boyce, who are expected to get a large chunk of business from the government.
Critical to develop domestic competency
The decision comes at a time when India is facing resistance from China which has been blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). China itself has ambitious plans of capturing and dominating the nuclear reactor manufacturing space that until now has been dominated by countries like USA, Japan, France, Canada and Russia.
Leading companies like Toshiba have suffered major losses on account of Westinghouse of USA (owned by Toshiba) facing bankruptcy. Almost all other major nuclear reactor manufacturing companies are under severe pressure and struggling to remain profitable. China has been eyeing this space.
The decision by the Indian government to promote domestic design and manufacture of PHWRs is going to help Indian nuclear industry mature and subsequently export reactors for civilian use to other countries in future.
India fights nuclear isolation
On 18 May, 1974, India exploded a nuclear device at Pokhran in Rajasthan that took the world by surprise. India used the CIRUS reactor supplied by Canada that ran on heavy water supplied by USA.
Consequent to that explosion, India faced nuclear technology isolation for 34 years which forced Indian scientists to develop indigenous technology to meet its power generation requirement. India subsequently mastered the technology and developed lower capacity reactors of 220 MW, 540 MW and 700 MW capacity.
India currently operates 22 nuclear reactors, of which 18 are heavy water reactors and four light water. Heavy water reactors are safer, more efficient and can be operated for longer duration as these do not require to be stopped for re-fueling.
India on track for clean energy
Presently, India is generating 6,780 MW of nuclear power with another 6,780 MW in the process of coming up. India has been in negotiations with Westinghouse of USA for the supply of six AP1000 reactors in India. With the company facing bankruptcy, the future of this project is in doubt.
In the first quarter of 2016, India had an installed power generation capacity of 300 GWe, of this, nuclear power contributed less than 7GWe.
India aims to generate 14.6 GWe of nuclear power by 2024 and 63 GWe by 2032. The long-term goal is to ensure that nuclear power meets 25% of India’s energy needs by 2050.
India is recognized for mastering fast reactor and thorium fuel cycles technology, and the country now has an opportunity to further develop these with an eye on the international market.
With the government promoting indigenous nuclear technology development, the Indian industry is well poised to grab a major share of the forthcoming opportunity, beginning with the 10 PHWRs just announced.
Key concerns – safety and profitability
In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, global concern over nuclear safety has risen sharply. The world had earlier witnessed the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia in April 1986 and its consequences, therefore, the Indian government and the industry will be under great pressure for establishing very high levels of safety and back-up measures.
The Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu has faced a lot of local protests over safety concerns as have other locations in India. This is something the government will have to address in due time.
Profitability is the other major concern. Most nuclear equipment manufacturing companies globally are facing rising costs and incurring losses. Nuclear energy is clean but comes at a high cost and someone has to bear that cost. The success of the industry will ultimately lie in keeping the costs competitive in comparison with other clean technologies like solar and wind.
It has taken over two decades for the solar industry to reach a cost-competitive level where it can compete with thermal power. Unless nuclear power is delivered at a competitive price and without too much government subsidy, there won’t be hope for a nuclear future.
Let’s hope India stands up to the challenge as it has done in the past.