Counted among the fifteen countries currently building reactors and intently following the forty-five countries which intend to introduce fission to their energy portfolios soon, India may be positioning itself as the foremost purveyor of international nuclear growth. It would gain this position by emerging as one of the world’s largest customers for nuclear power plants while simultaneously injecting its own reactor technology – which Indian engineers have long been developing and could soon bring to market – as a potentially disruptive product in the energy industry.
Note that while the fallout of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan is yet to be seen and difficult to predict, it is doubtful that emerging economies like India and China will alter their ambitious nuclear programs in its wake. In fact, the delay in new builds that may occur in more regulated markets like that of the United States (US) and Germany could further India’s leadership position. While the US takes pause to second-guess and triple-check the integrity of designs and plant locations, India will continue to build new generation reactors and commercialize environmentally-beneficial and highly-profitable energy technology.
India’s nuclear sector has enjoyed steady growth because of its Nuclear Power Programme (NPP): a multi-decade, three-stage schedule for meeting rapidly increasing electricity demand and liberating the nation from energy dependence. In the first stage, the industry was jumpstarted with proven technology, Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), in order to equip domestic engineers with reactor-operation experience and to help meet the nation’s anticipated electricity needs. The second stage incorporates research, development, and deployment of Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs).
India’s nuclear policy body, the Atomic Energy Commission, sought to develop breeder technology because it is capable of producing and reproducing the material necessary for fission reactions until nearly no material is left, and it does not need natural uranium – a resource which India lacks. In the long term, breeders could clean up after PHWRs by using their waste as fuel and eliminate the need for spent fuel storage. Finally, NPP’s third stage envisions another breeder design, called the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which would primarily use thorium – India’s indigenous fuel. So, after about fifty years of deliberate and well-planned growth, the bustling economy could derive as much as a quarter of its electricity from a carbon-free, domestic resource.
The NPP, expressed in these three simple stages, is as pragmatic in its systematic shift toward a domestic resource as it is wise in its anticipation of the advantages of breeder technology. India has built and operated twenty reactors since 1969. As domestic engineers have gained experienced, those reactors’ capacity factors have risen from the world’s lowest to as high as 87% (when fuel has been available). Five more reactors are currently under construction; and one of those is a prototype FBR. Remarkably, the vast majority of this progress has occurred without the assistance of foreign suppliers or experts.
Yet impressive as its growth has been thus far, India was recently given reason to raise the bar for future growth even higher. The NPP was formulated when foreign technology and uranium importation were either prohibited or severely limited because of India’s exclusion from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970. However, upon signing the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) agreement in 2008, India was granted the right to import reactor technology from the US, Russia, France, the United Kingdom (UK), and South Korea, and fuel from Canada, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Namibia. Since then, Indian nuclear development cannot seem to happen quickly enough.
The table below illustrates India’s anticipated build schedule: a staggering 48 reactors planned or firmly proposed for operation by 2023:
The list includes designs by Russia’s Rosatom (PWR-AES and PWR-WER), France’s AREVA (EPR) and the US’s GE (ESBWR) and Westinghouse (AP-1000). Discussions with Korea’s Electric Power Company (APR-1400) are also underway. Perhaps even more ambitious is India’s intention to commercially operate two FBRs by 2019, as well as a prototype AHWR by 2017. (Russia is currently the only country with similarly-sized breeder reactors in operation). A conservative projection of growth depicted in the table takes India’s nuclear electricity supply from its present 3.7 GW(e) (2.5% of total capacity) to 1094 GW(e) (approximately 25% of predicted total capacity) by 2050. Others believe the percentage will reach fifty by mid-century.
While it is clear that the emerging nation represents an enormous customer that will help the nuclear industry mature and grow, it may also assist the nation’s industry in its role as a leading exporter of breakthrough technology. The NSG agreement permits India to sell its domestically-developed technologies to international customers. Currently, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India is offering 220 and 540 MWe PHWRs to markets requiring small- to medium-sized reactors. But the AHWR will likely be the big seller. Given rising uranium prices and the fact that thorium is three to four times as common on the surface of the earth as uranium, countries seeking nuclear power may view the AHWR as a wise long-term investment. Additionally, breeder technology eliminates the need for spent fuel storage – a concern which plagues the US industry and others.
Granted, the AHWR has yet to be proven and commercialized, and unease exists about how prone breeders may be to proliferation. Nevertheless, India’s forward-thinking attitude has established the country as the leader in breeder research and development, and the unease will only fade with continued effort in demonstration. In fact, following India’s lead, the UK recently announced plans to partner on thorium-reactor research. After visiting the Atomic Research Center in Mumbai, British researcher Mike Fitzpatrick was “amazed at the ambition and resource behind India’s nuclear programme, and how much UK researchers could benefit from being associated with it.”
Such success in nuclear development begs the question: what can the US learn from India? A direct comparison is obviously difficult. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India only allows government operation of reactors, though plants can be owned by private minorities. Technological development is also directed by the government, not multiple companies and labs. This simplifies Indian regulation. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must track technological development and watch utilities operate plants. As a result, action taken toward a collective goal is often fractured or impossible to incentivize.
But it is indisputable that the US would benefit from a long-term plan, which is the key ingredient to India’s success. A culture wherein shifts in the political wind can derail a multi-decade project and leave a $14 billion investment dormant is not a culture that fosters purposeful growth in large infrastructure. Decisions regarding the development of systems providing public goods, like energy, deserve serious rationales that actually address end goals. Energy must be prioritized above politics, and that includes the largely uninformed treatment of the Fukushima disaster in the media and in some US leadership thus far. A priority-driven message is evident in India’s NPP:
Research and development in the field of cutting edge nuclear technologies have to be necessarily based on elaborate programmes, and the velocity of such R&D is strongly dependent on the level of inputs of our limited resources to such programmes, in competition with other shorter term priorities. Recognising this, and the fact that India has to be in the lead as far as the development and deployment of thorium utilization technologies are concerned, an early beginning in this direction has already been made. A strong indigenous R&D infrastructure, including trained scientific and engineering manpower, developed over last several decades, is already available, to a large extent, to help us in reaching further milestones towards the goal of large scale deployment of thorium as a sustainable energy resource for India.
While India’s plan for growing its nuclear industry is by no means perfect (there is significant room for improvement in the human-dimension, for instance), it can rightly be considered an accomplishment that will benefit India’s economy as well as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Hopefully the US will soon become as far-sighted.
Dan O’Connor is a Policy Fellow in AEL’s New Energy Leaders Project. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AEL.