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India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is famous for his commitment to solar power. In the past month, however, Modi has praised nuclear energy and declared that it will form a vital part of India’s energy mix. In July 2014, the prime minister visited the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, praising the country’s scientists and challenging them to strive for even greater achievements. Within ten days of Modi’s BARC visit, it was announced that India would be setting up 22 nuclear power projects with Russian assistance. In addition to the six nuclear reactors planned for Chhaya Mithi Virdhi from Westinghouse, another six reactors for Kovvada from General Electric, and six more from Areva for Jaitapur, India is in talks to import 40 reactors – almost 200% of its present number and over 700% of its installed nuclear capacity.

However, it must be remembered that the time for celebration in India is post delivery, not post announcement; bureaucracy can frustratingly distort timelines and projections. There is reason for nuclear power enthusiasts to be cautiously elated with the development but beyond India’s labyrinthine bureaucracy, there are some issues arising from India’s massive nuclear expansion that require some careful thought.

The first concern is that the 40 reactors India is looking at are all light water reactors (LWRs) with which India has little experience. Barring the original two reactors at Tarapur, India’s nuclear fraternity operates a fleet of pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs). After the initial purchase of a 220 MW CANDU reactor from Canada for Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS) I (a second purchase was interrupted by the post-Pokhran sanctions), Indian scientists modified and improved the technology to produce CANDU-derivatives known as INDU. The two boiling water reactors (BWRs) at Tarapur were purchased to prove to a sceptical Lok Sabha that Indians could indeed operate nuclear power plants safely on their own and the sector receive full support.

Kudankulam is India’s first LWR, and as such, Indian knowledge about operating the reactor is only bookish. To master the technology and be able to come up with improvements and indigenous designs will require time, training, and large transfers of technology. One of the benefits of the tens of billions of dollars of nuclear imports ought to be that India learn to at least replicate if not design the reactors indigenously. Training engineers to operate the LWRs is fairly easy and quick but with 40 more reactors added to the mix, the autonomous Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) will be busy with plant management to do additional research and experimentation on LWR designs. As it is, some 90% of NPCIL’s budget goes towards operations and management, leaving only crumbs for research & development and nothing for expansion.

Corporations and governments do not engage in technology transfer without extracting a steep price. However, even if India were able to secure a painless technology transfer from its nuclear vendors, to whom would the transfer be made? Due to the clause in the Indo-US nuclear deal that stipulates the separation of India’s nuclear facilities, only those designated for exclusive civilian use can be the beneficiaries of such transfers. Otherwise, the military facility receiving the transfer will lose its status and come under international safeguards. With BARC disqualified and NPCIL incapable, only the fledgling BHAVINI is left whose main purpose is the development and operation of fast breeder reactors. In effect, there is presently no agency in India capable of conducting in-depth studies of other reactor designs or doing extensive research on new and promising reactor designs such as the molten salt reactor; even India’s thorium reactor programme is proceeding at a snail’s pace.

However, why is India suddenly interested in LWRs? The primary reason India chose HWRs over LWRs and BWRs in the 1950s was that the former did not require the large investment in the development of enrichment technology. Furthermore, the technology to make the heavy water needed for PHWRs was easily available and only had to be mass-produced. A further advantage of HWRs is its ability to achieve criticality at lower concentrations of fissile isotopes than in LWRs. This makes it ideal for the use of thorium or MOX fuel without much redesigning, something India has been interested in for a long time due to the paucity of domestic uranium.

It is puzzling why India has not reached out to Canada to help with its nuclear renaissance. Delhi has a history with Ottawa, albeit complicated, and Indian scientists are familiar with the basic CANDU design. Since 1974, when Canada imposed sanctions on India, Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) has significantly enhanced its designs to the CANDU-6, the Enhanced Candu 6 (EC6), the Advanced CANDU Reactor (ACR), and others. These reactors retain the advantages of tolerance to multiple kinds of fuel – including thorium – and have better safety mechanisms installed, a perfect fit for India’s nuclear needs.

In the long run, India should think about emerging as a nuclear vendor, from reactors and components to services. This can hardly be done with a research establishment trapped in the civil-military divide; the role of NPCIL and/or Bhavini must be expanded while simultaneously encouraging private players to participate in the nuclear market. This can be hastened only with more training, experience, and research, for which the choice of India’s partners will be important. Contrary to public perception, the United States and Canada were far more forthcoming with Tarapur and RAPS I & II than the Russians are with Kudankulam.

Decades of neglect has brought the Indian nuclear power sector to a point where it is forced to make sub-optimal choices for the near-term. Forty years of sanctions forced indigenous development, which has been a success story with mixed results. However, the country’s power crisis is so acute that like Tarapur in 1962, a few LWRs are needed to provide momentum to a moribund industry. Thankfully, India is a large country with a growing population, medium industrialisation, and a massive power deficit. These disadvantages can work in India’s favour now over the purchase of LWRs – if the government can sustain growth, by 2050, India may well need up to 200 new reactors and 40 or even 80 LWRs with a 40-year lifespan will appear a notable but not subversive trend in Indian nuclear development. However, the government should be aware of the history of India’s nuclear development and the trajectory it has plotted for itself before making any major purchases or decisions.