Thorium reactors will herald a new era of self-sufficiency for India in nuclear fuel. Sudhinder Thakur, Executive Director, Nuclear Power Corporation of India, tells R Srinivasan how NPCIL plans to utilise thorium on a priority basis, but says the shift will take decades.
From 17 nuclear power units with a total installed capacity of 4,120 MW, India intends to produce 52,000 MW on line by 2020. How does NPCIL intend to assist in the achievement of this target?
India has 19 nuclear power reactors with a total installed capacity of 4,560 MW currently in operation including Rajasthan 5 and 6 (2x220 MW) which commenced commercial operation from this year. In addition, a capacity of 2,720 MW is in advanced stages of construction and will be added in the next two years or so taking a total nuclear power capacity from 23 reactors to 7,280 MW by the end of the XI Plan. Construction has also been launched for four reactors of 700 MW at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan and Kakrapar in Gujarat. These will be completed by 2017. The current plan envisages commencement of work on four reactors of 700 MW, 10 reactors of 1,000 MW, two reactors of 500 MW and one advanced heavy water reactor of 300 MW. With these plants, a significant nuclear power capacity can be added by about 2020.
France has 59 nuclear reactors and produces 63 GW. What can be done to ensure that India too can deploy multiple power plants like France?
In connection with multiplication of capacity, rather than addition, the key is standardisation of designs and setting up of nuclear power reactors on a convoy mode. The indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) of 700 MW are standardised units that are essentially meant for inland locations. The coastal locations are to be used for a series of standardised Light Water Reactors (LWRs) built with the same technology. The site have been in principle approved and pre-project activities at these sites have commenced.
The cost of nuclear power is high when compared to the cost of thermal power. Should subsidisation of nuclear power continue?
The average tariff of nuclear power stations in 2009-10 at about Rs 2.30 paisa/kWh is quite comparable to the thermal power particularly, at non-pithead locations. In connection with nuclear power operations in the country, there is no subsidy and future nuclear power stations economics has to be stand alone.
What can be done to address concerns in nuclear power plants like safety concerns over proximity to Pakistan, safety of power plant operation, decommissioning of power plants and efficient waste disposal and nuclear radiation?
Safety of nuclear power stations is of paramount consideration and has received considerable attention in India as well as the rest of the world. Safety concerns of nuclear power stations are addressed from the very beginning starting from commencement of siting till the decommissioning of power plants. India is a large country and nuclear power stations [in India] are situated quite far away from the national boundaries. In connection with all activities of nuclear power stations, guidelines of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which are consistent with such other international guidelines for radiation protection, release to the environment, etc, are strictly adhered to. This has been amply demonstrated in over 300 reactor-years of operation in India.
Is NPCIL contemplating a tie-up with another company for design and development?
While the 700 MW reactors are an indigenous development, many activities of the detailed designs for setting up of the reactor are outsourced to consultants or manufacturers in the country. In terms of setting up large light water reactors, they will be set up based on a technical co-operation basis from companies from France, Russia and USA.
NPCIL has signed an MoU with Bharat Heavy Electricals (BHEL) for a joint venture (JV) to carry out engineering, procurement and construction activities for a nuclear power plant island. The JV will explore and evaluate the various options for turbogenerator sets of 700 MW rating and above. What is the status on this front?
The joint venture agreement with BHEL for the turbogenerators sets of 700 MW is currently under approval.
As a testimony to its financial strength, NPCIL intends to continue undertaking projects without budgetary support from the government. How much (amount) is spent on R&D facilities?
The current forecast is to set up reactors in Gujarat and Rajasthan without any budgetary support from the Government of India. In addition, some more projects can also be taken up only on NPCIL’s financial strength. The organisation is also having discussions with IOC, NALCO, NTPC and other PSUs in the country for formation of joint ventures to undertake some of the projects. The R&D requirements of power stations in operations are for very specific developmental activities and the expenditure is met from the R&D fund accumulations. With NPCIL being the developer for designs of PHWRs (220 MW, 540 MW, 700 MW), such expenses are not separately covered by R&D facilities.
Currently known Indian thorium reserves amount to 358,000 GW per year of electrical energy and can easily meet the energy requirements during the next century and beyond. Also, thorium produces less waste for the same electricity generated; it produces 50 per cent less waste by volume, 70 per cent less by weight, about 90 per cent lower radio toxicity than uranium fuel. So this has significant cost savings for the storage and handling of the fuel. India has 25 per cent of the world’s thorium resources. In view of all this, would it lead to greater self-sufficiency if India relies more on thorium than on uranium fuel supply from other countries?
The three-stage nuclear power programme of India envisages utilisation of full potential of thorium in the country. The technologies on one hand need to be researched, designed, and developed before deployment. We also need significant capacity of fast-breeder reactors in operation before exploitation of thorium on a commercial scale. These two activities are currently going on in parallel and introduction of thorium on a commercial scale has to be timed properly so as to utilise its full potential.
Also, in view of the above, what is the need for India to get a stake in Russia’s Elkon field for long-term Uranium supplies?
Considering that commercial production of electricity from thorium is a few decades away, the energy needs and the nuclear share thereof will have to be met through the reactors using uranium and diversity of the sources is one of the considerations in assuring uranium supplies.
In view of shortage of fuel availability (only 50 per cent uranium is available) what prevents us from switching to an alternative like Lightbridge Corporation’s thorium-based technology to reduce dependence on imported uranium?
The balance between indigenous and imported fuel needs to be maintained. The indigenous fuel supply, which has seen shortages in the past, is now improving. The use of thorium-based technology has to be through the indigenous route in which India is a pioneer to start with.
Kindly elaborate on the role of the Indian reactor prototype, a new version of the advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR), christened AHWR300-LEU which was unveiled at IAEA in Vienna last year.
The AHWR is another step in utilisation of thorium and a prototype reactor of 300 MW is planned to be built in the next couple of years.
Kamini, a reactor at Kalpakkam, is the only operating reactor in the world using U233 fuel. How did India achieve this small but significant step towards utilisation of our vast thorium reserves?
Utilisation of thorium is a priority area for India, considering the modest uranium but abundant thorium resources. Elsewhere, so is not the situation because adequate uranium is available. The setting up of reactor Kamini is a step for thorium technology development and is quite significant for sequential execution of the third stage of the programme.
An advertisement was given on 28 June 2010 for experienced engineering graduates/MTechs/PhDs. How difficult has it been to get skilled manpower? Do you feel the pinch of inadequate technically skilled manpower? What measures are being adopted to overcome the same?
For induction of manpower, we have a regular intake directly as well as along with Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) or Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). The engineers have to undergo about five years' training and work experience before responsibilities are assigned and accordingly the manpower induction is programmed, considering the needs of about a couple of years in advance and also to make a provision of additional resources that can be deployed for different stations.
Along with its major role in nuclear power, NPCIL intends to contribute towards wind power and hydropower. It initiated the operation of a 10 MWe windfarm at Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu) in 2007. What are the developments in terms of expanding this capacity?
The experience of setting up a wind farm at Kudankulam has been quite satisfactory. NPCIL has also finalised a hydro-pumped storage scheme, which is under the scrutiny of agencies including the Central Electricity Authority of the Ministry of Power after which the project proposals will be finalised.
What is the status of Kudankulam (2010-11), Rajasthan (2016), Kaiga (August 2010) and Kakrapar (2015) projects?
A major milestone of dummy fuel loading has been completed. All efforts have been made to commission the first unit at Kudankulam by the end of 2010 or beginning of next year with the second unit following with a gap of about six months. We expect to commence fuel loading at Kaiga in September and make it ready for commercial operation towards the end of this year. Unit 5 and 6 of Rajasthan have commenced commercial operation in the first quarter of 2010. Unit 7 and 8 at the same site and Kakrapar in Gujarat have just been launched and we expect a gestation period of about five years for the first unit. Considering that NPCIL in co-operation with the Indian nuclear industry (which has supplied all the equipment) has already demonstrated the capability in this regard, I am confident of completing these reactors in about five years.
Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) is a public sector enterprise under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Government of India. It was registered under the Companies Act, 1956, in 1987 to operate the atomic power stations and implement atomic power projects for generation of electricity. Presently, it is operating 19 nuclear power plants with a total installed capacity of 4,560 MWe and has seven reactors under construction totalling 5,020 MWe capacity. The company generated about 90 billion units of electricity in the X Plan (2002-2007) exceeding the set target by about 10 per cent. The authorised share capital of the company is Rs 15,000 crore.