Rift in public, private players in Indian nuclear industry

At a time when the Narendra Modi government has thrown its weight behind the nuclear power generation, the rift between the public and private players has become the bane for the nuclear energy sector in the country. At the 9th Nuclear Energy Conclave in the capital while the private players sited lack of orders creating existential problems for them, the public major Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) in turn used the forum to point out their incompetence.

The conclave organised on October 27, one of only few big congregations of different nuclear firms in the country, turned into a bitter slinging match as many small firm representatives aired their grievances in presence of the Executive Director (Procurement) of NPCIL Lokesh Kumar.

“Transparency in industry will help…. Since 2010 most of industries, which are involved in nuclear sector, are starving. Consider industry your partner, be transparent; and if a company has a lacuna tell them,” Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Pune-based Walchandnagar Industries Ltd GK Pillai said during a Round table session on ‘Industry Perspective and Preparedness to Meet Capacity Addition Targets of Nuclear Power’.

Pillai’s statement invited a quick riposte from Mission Director of Advanced Ultra Super Critical (AUSC) Project of the government SC Chetal. Chetal publicly told Walchandnagar, a 108 years-old company, to improve its “site works”. The company has provided critical components for India’s first moon mission Chandrayaan-I and inter-continental ballistic missile programme Agni-V besides other major projects.

The exchange of sharp words at the conclave organised by the Indian Energy Forum is symptomatic of the problems plaguing the Indian nuclear industry. The display of rift comes at a time when the Indian government; to give fillip to the indigenous industry; has sanctioned a fleet of indigenous 10 pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWRs). But for the Indian firms in the nuclear energy sector the prospects of orders have come after a long hiatus.

Pillai’s sentiments also found resonance in the thoughts of Chief Operating Officer (CEO) of Godrej & Boyce Mfg. Co. Ltd Kaustubh Shukla, whose company got no orders for nearly a decade now. Applauding the project to manufacture 10 PHWRs as something the nuclear industry was begging for, Shukla said: “…The bad news was that the business interest in the nuclear sector was fading. Organisations are run by people and people are there to make money. If they do not see a business case we have a problem. We actually faced this. For the past 8 years, we have not seen any business. We have to explain this to boards to stakeholders. This has become a disappointment…”

Shukla also put the development of the Indian nuclear industry in a chronological fashion and termed the year 2002-03 as the time with “flurry of activities” that gave hope to the industry. Next came the period of euphoria after 2005 as many nuclear power plants were set up. The period between 2009 and 2010 was that of “cautious optimism” and from 2010 to present have been that of suspended animation. “Once again there has been hope. We have to make it (10 PHWRs) happen. It is a colossal task. It is not impossible…. We have to address the bottlenecks and irritants,” Shukla added.

Earlier in the day, NPCIL had given a rough timeline for the most ambitious nuclear energy programme of India – PHWRs. He said that the industry should expect start of tendering process by 2018.

Another nuclear engineering company Avasarala Technologies Ltd cited lack of communication channels between private and public players, besides long time lapse in resolving the commercial interests as major irritants. “From NPCIL the expectations are regarding the general conditions of the contracts and also the time taken to resolve any commercial issue takes years particularly when releasing last retention money,” Chief Managing Director of Avasarala Mani TT said, while adding: “Other thing that we used to have earlier was atomic energy forum at NPCIL after every few months to share our problems. But now it has been discontinued for two-three years.”

The complaints from all the industry players left NPCIL, the government-owned enterprise responsible for generation of nuclear power in India, red in the face; and NPCIL representative sought to downplay them. NPCIL Executive Director (Procurement) Kumar said that by and large tender specifications are clear but sometimes some variations crop up during the on sites construction. He also harped on delays on the part of the private players in implementing projects. The accusing tones from both the sides brought out the wedge between the nuclear industry players when India aims to triple its nuclear power generation by 2024.

The project for manufacturing ten home grown PHWRs is intended to transform the domestic nuclear industry by increasing cash flow and help indigenous industrial capacities in high-end technologies. The Indian government had termed the project “a significant decision to fast-track India’s domestic nuclear power programme, and give a push to country’s nuclear industry”.

The total installed capacity of the 10 plants will be 7000 MW. With likely manufacturing orders of close to Rs. 70,000 crores this Project will also bring about substantial economies of scale and maximise cost and time efficiencies by adopting “fleet mode” for execution. It is expected to generate more than 33,400 jobs in direct and indirect employment. “With manufacturing orders to domestic industry, it will be a major step towards strengthening India’s credentials as a major nuclear manufacturing powerhouse,” the Indian government had said following the approval for the project.