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India’s nuclear family

With Parliament passing the nuclear liability bill last week, the country’s atomic energy establishment and companies in the sector are waiting to step on the gas. HT’s correspondents visited three plant sites to see whether locals will join the ride. Prasad Nichenametla reports.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2010 22:40 IST
Prasad Nichenametla

Scientists and technicians at the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station have always been proud of what they have achieved.

Rajasthan Atomic Power Station’s units 7 and 8, two of India’s largest, indigenous pressurised heavy water reactors, of 700 MW capacity each, started last week. So it’s natural that the site director of the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station, C P Jhamb, is jubilant.

“Apart from lifting our nuclear apartheid, the Indo-US nuclear agreement erased the mismatch between our capacity increase and our fuel supply, which had dogged the Indian nuclear power industry,” Jhamb says, sitting in his office, with the serene Rana Pratap Sagar, a reservoir built on the Chambal river, in the backdrop. The reservoir was built for generating hydro-electricity and supplying water for the cooling systems in the nuclear power plant.

After the deal and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group’s nod for nuclear commerce with India, the capacity of three of the plant’s six reactors has increased. Units 2, 3 and 4, earlier operating at just 50 to 60 per cent, are now operating in full swing, with Unit 2 rolling out at 102 per cent. The last two, unit 5 and 6, commenced operation by March. (The first reactor is non-operational.)

This station is dedicated to power production and has all its reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Following the deal, it became the first site to have received the benefits, receiving consignments of uranium oxide pellets from Russia and natural uranium from France in 2009.

The country’s other facilities are yet to derive the benefit and are still dependent on indigenous fuel from the Jhaduguda mines in Jharkhand.

With Parliament having passed the nuclear liability bill last week, Jhamb explains how the sector will benefit. “With old plants running at full capacity and deriving good profits, we can plan many major projects,” he says.

His colleagues share his optimism.

“With so much happening on the nuclear front, I am raring to get back to installation work on units 7 and 8,” says Chandra Mohan Pandit, a senior maintenance engineer who played a major role in installing unit 5 and 6 and is now in charge of security systems.

Meanwhile, the economy of Rawatbhata, a town owing its existence to the power station, is also growing. A small nondescript village in 1971 when the construction on the plant began, Rawatbhata is among the biggest municipalities in the state.

Property prices are rising, with suppliers of construction material and automobile shops doing good business.

“Whatever the town is today is because of the nuclear plant. As more reactors came up, the opportunities increased,” says Neeru Govil, 45, who teaches science at the Government Senior Secondary School for girls and whose husband works as a plant operator. “There is commotion about the deal. But we, along with many others, have benefited from the nuclear plant.”

When there is resistance against nuclear plants coming up in Saurashtra, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, locals here have not protested. “We do not see any danger from the plant,” says Arjun Gujjar of Kolipura, a village in the Mukandara hills wildlife sanctuary.

Villagers of Jawra Khalan, another small village 17 kilometres from the plant, say they have 24-hour power supply for domestic and agricultural use, which they feel is because of the plant. With the completion of 7 and 8 units, the state’s power shortage will be history, says a Nuclear Power Corporation official.