India’s Nuclear Slumber

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Every couple of months, an article appears in the Indian media that launches a broadside against the country’s civilian nuclear establishment. In principle, this would not be a bad thing if they were accurate and focussed critiques that revealed flaws in the the way India manages its nuclear energy sector. However, most authors seem content to smear the nuclear conclave hoping that even the appearance of any impropriety would be enough to imply wrongdoing and scandal.

To be fair, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) does little to endear itself to the public. Despite its under-publicised yet generous public outreach, the organisation remains unduly secretive and often promises far more than it can deliver. The scientists at NPCIL are undoubtedly capable – their technical excellence has been recognised several times by international bodies since India began to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities pursuant to the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. India has had no catastrophic nuclear failures until now and its only major accident, at Narora in 1993, was dealt with quickly and in a professional manner.

Yet this technical distinction is only matched by NPCIL’s administrative incompetence. The nuclear renaissance India was supposed to go through after the Indo-US nuclear deal has so far been a dud. Domestic critics argued that India did not require the deal, that indigenous capacity could easily provide for the country’s nuclear growth. Yet after 72 years, India has only 22 reactors in operation – about the same as what China has under construction at present. Having signed the deal, the troublesome nuclear liability law scuttled any hope that there might be rapid nuclear growth – 63,000 MW by 2032, according to the government – in the country. Although there has been impressive progress in improved efficiency and greater power generation capacity via solar and thermal sources, nuclear energy – the best option for clean and reliable energy – has embarrassingly lagged behind.

The failure of the Indian nuclear energy sector, contrary to the frequent media speculations, is not in safety but in marketing. As a public sector unit, albeit autonomous, NPCIL does not solicit business with the same aggressiveness that may be expected from a private firm. It lobbies neither the central not state governments to consider nuclear energy in lieu of other options nor does it emphasise the several benefits of nuclear power. With foreign vendors balking at India’s nuclear liability law, NPCIL has not used the opportunity to step up and offer to substitute foreign reactors with its own.

Nuclear projects in India are frequently late, but this must be seen in the context of a nation where everything is perennially late. Delays occur due to several factors – change in specifications (eg post-Fukushima), citizen protests (eg Kudankulam), shortfalls in financing (eg the dissolution of the Soviet Union), delays in sourcing, and delays in construction. All of these can be avoided with better planning and greater public outreach from the land acquisition stage onwards. Even delays in sourcing can be mitigated if there are healthy growth prospects for the nuclear industry – private vendors of sub-components will not be eager to expand production capacity in either volume or pace unless there are profit incentives. Most components for the nuclear power industry are made to order with special characteristics that make them nuclear grade.

Efficiency of construction can be increased if the present policy of building only two reactors at a time is amended to allow greater simultaneous construction. The experience from the nuclear power project at Barakah in the United Arab Emirates clearly highlights the benefits of constructing four or more reactors at once. NPCIL seems to have failed at even making a technical case to the government for these operational efficiencies to be adopted as policy.

For the government’s part, it has not applied sufficient scrutiny to the Atomic Energy Commission for its generally lackadaisical performance. Still trapped in the mentality of a colonial police state, it has not even entertained the thought of allowing private players entry into the nuclear energy sector as not just component manufacturers but as operators and utility companies. It may not be a widely known fact that nuclear power, rather than logically being consolidated with the Ministry for Power, comes under the Prime Minister’s Office. Transferring responsibility would make a lot of sense, especially since India has already separated its civilian nuclear programme from its military efforts in concordance with the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Fourth Estate has a penchant for blaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi even for the most tertiary things – for once, in this case, it is actually he who must answer.


This post appeared on FirstPost on July 19, 2016.

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