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Go back to the labs

Indian nuclear scientists must learn to innovate to become self-reliant, writes Ashok Parthasarathi.

india Updated: Dec 21, 2011 22:21 IST
Ashok Parthasarathi
Ashok Parthasarathi

There is no doubt that India needs a multi-technology approach to become self-reliant and efficient in energy. There is also an urgent need for government-led research to create requisite technological innovations for achieving those goals. But while big money is necessary for achieving them, it alone can’t ensure success. Indian scientists and engineers need to come up with innovative ideas.

An excellent example is our nuclear power programme. Money has never been a problem but what about innovations? In the last 60 years, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research have not done much to improve efficiency and reduce costs, or devise more effective and natural uranium-conserving nuclear fuel cycles.

I have been associated with the programme since 1967 and I can cite only three major achievements of the two institutes mentioned above: first, the development of the world’s first plutonium-carbide fuel (instead of the usual plutonium-enriched uranium) for the 40 MW fast-breeder test reactor. Second, the plutonium-natural uranium mixed oxide fuel for thermal reactors; and third, the superb process development, design, engineering, manufacturing and installation of the 500 MW prototype fast-breeder reactor ‘Bhavani’. If the 300 MW advanced heavy water reactor with a plutonium core and a thorium blanket, whose design has been completed but further work has not happened, comes through, it will be the fourth achievement.

However, there has been no progress on how to reduce the following: the quantity of natural uranium used to fuel a thermal reactor, the tonnage of heavy water and design, engineering costs, and improve the quality of materials used for construction. All these can reduce the cost of power generation.

Safety is absolutely paramount. But as the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) of Areva shows, ensuring stringent safety makes highly capital-intensive nuclear power plants even more expensive, thereby further increasing the cost of electricity generated. As for the plan of increasing the generating capacity to 63,000 MW by 2032 (as projected by the Department of Atomic Energy), we would only get to this if we manage to generate 20,000 MW by 2022, and then 43,000 MW between 2022 and 2032. To achieve this, India needs to manufacture, install and commission 1,000 MW reactors in 10 years. This is an impossible task, particularly when the two Russian 1,000 MW reactors at Kudankulam have taken 11 and 12 years respectively to complete. Finally, the Russian pressurised water reactors have the lowest initial capital requirement and operating and life cycle costs; the French EPRs need the highest; while those of Westinghouse and General Electric-Hitachi fall in between.

According to India’s policy, all nuclear power stations must be owned and operated by public sector companies such as the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. and the National Thermal Power Corporation. Although these are blue chip companies with huge financial reserves, even they can’t raise and invest the gargantuan amounts of capital needed to set up 43 nuclear power plants of 1,000 MW capacity each over 12 years.

( Ashok Parthasarathi is former secretary to the Government of India and was science adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi )

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 21, 2011 22:19 IST