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The road ahead is tortuous, but it leads to light

india Updated: Jul 23, 2008 01:50 IST

So, yesterday the government got through the confidence vote in the Parliament. Believe it or not, in the long run, the margin of victory doesn’t really matter. It is ironic that in many democracies, major decisions with long-term consequences have been taken with wafer-thin majority.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton faced with an economic crisis presented a bold and landmark budget, which increased taxes and restrained government spending. It passed by one vote, that too from Vice-President Al Gore. This budget transformed the US economy from one with large deficit to huge surpluses. That is, until President Bush took over!

While our foreign service and atomic energy officials haggle with the IAEA, NSG and other governments over the fine print, we should not forget the core issue — that of energy.

How can we make the nuclear agreement work for this?

1. Import Uranium on an emergency basis for indigenous reactors that are going to be under safeguards. These reactors are low on fuel and today run at about 50% capacity. This, in a short run, would chip in to reduce the present power crisis.

2. Sign agreement with Russia for expanding Kudankulam site with 2-4 more reactors besides the two under construction. Six reactors at a single site is not unknown. France has one such site in Gravelines, generating about 5,500 MW.

3. Import Light Water Reactors (LWR) of 1,000 MW capacity from France, Russia and the US. We should be able to commission about 30 reactors by 2030. For building these, India should identify new sites without much delay.

4. Freed from fuel supply worries, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) should continue to build more Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) of 700 MW. This, if done diligently, can add up to 25,000 MW by 2030. These reactors will also produce Plutonium, the fuel for the Fast Breeder Reactors.

5. For building fast reactors, we need Plutonium that has to be extracted from the ‘spent fuel’, the ones removed from thermal reactors after use. India’s present annual reprocessing capacity of 200 tonnes is abysmally small. We should increase this to at least 2,200 tonnes within the next 10 years. Without these additions, there would be no fuel for the fast reactors. To accelerate the breeder programme, we should also explore the possibility of importing Plutonium and reprocessing India's spent fuel abroad.

6. Breeder reactors continue to remain a compelling option for our future energy needs. DAE should focus on proving and commercialising this technology. Many countries are now coming to recognise that India, once an embargoed nation, can provide the global leadership in fast breeder technologies. We shouldn’t allow this lead to go away.

7. We believe that Thorium will have to wait, at least for many decades, until breeders produce enough Plutonium, to transform thorium into a fuel fit for nuclear reactors.

8. We should amend the Atomic Energy Act to enable the Indian private sector to participate for building LWRs. However, the legislative process would take its own time. Meanwhile, Nuclear Power Corporation Ltd, National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd and Bharat Heavy Electrical Ltd could participate in building LWRs.

9. Only one other country, France has gone through the experience of building and commissioning 30 reactors in a single year. If we follow the above route, we could have up to 15 reactors under construction simultaneously. Atomic Energy Regulation Board must ensure that safety is not compromised because of numbers.

10. The manufacturing base in the country would have to grow several times to cater to the large number of nuclear plants under construction. This is a welcome development since it broad-bases our industry creating very large employment opportunities.

11. The country would need literally thousands of professionals, skilled and semi-skilled workers. Universities and training institutes will have to run special courses to train such large numbers.

All these may look overwhelming. But others, notably France, Russia and the US, were on this road before and succeeded. This is an opportunity that India should capitalise to compensate for missing the industrial revolution of the last century. All these, by the way, would only cost about one per cent of our GDP annually! Mr Chidambaram should not, therefore, worry! If we succeed, our future generations would look back on this Confidence Motion as the turning point that made India’s nuclear power a major contributor to the nation’s energy needs.

The authors are with Center for Study of Science,

Technology & Policy,

Bangalore (vsa@cstep.in,

anshu@cstep.in). Dr. V. S. Arunachalam is a former

Scientific Advisor to Defence Minister.