India considers allowing private sector investment to develop small modular reactors 

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India is exploring collaborations both with the country’s private sector as well as with foreign countries for development of small modular reactors (SMRs) to fulfil its commitment to clean energy transition, Atomic Energy Minister Jitendra Singh told the Indian Parliament earlier this month. 

However, expanding the country’s nuclear power capacity through large size reactors is the primary goal of the government, the Minister said. 

Indian laws do not allow the country’s private or non-governmental sector into the nuclear power development and generation sector.

Singh told the lower house of Parliament in a written reply that “the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 are being examined to allow participation of the private sector and start-ups to promote SMRs technology in the country.” 

“SMR is a promising technology in industrial decarbonisation, especially where there is a requirement of reliable and continuous supply of power. India is considering steps for development of SMRs, to fulfil its commitment to Clean Energy transition,” the Minister said. 

“Detailed technical discussions are currently under way to plan a roadmap for studying the feasibility and effectiveness of deployment of such reactors. Augmentation of nuclear power capacity through large size reactors is the primary goal of the Department,” he added. 

India has amended its laws some years back to enable the state-run operator Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) form joint ventures with other government-owned companies for the construction of NPPs. 

SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MW. They are a fraction of the size of conventional reactors, as well as modular, making it possible for systems and components to be factory-manufactured and transported as a unit to a location for installation.  

SMRs offer many advantages, such as relatively small physical footprints, reduced capital investment, ability to be sited in locations not possible for larger nuclear plants, and provisions for incremental power additions.    

A report on the role of SMRs in the energy transition released earlier this year by the government’s public policy think-tank, NITI Aayog, said that the industry must attract private sector investment for the successful development of SMR technology.  

The report noted that many SMR designs are being developed spanning a range of power outputs and aiming to cater for various end uses.  

“At present, nearly 80 SMR designs are under development and licensing stages, and a few of them are at deployment and operational stages globally” It categorises them as land-based water-cooled SMRs; marine based water cooled SMRs; high-temperature gas-cooled SMRs (HTGRs); liquid metal-cooled fast neutron spectrum SMRs (LMFRs); molten salt reactor SMRs (MSRs); and microreactors (MRs).” 

It also said that a few SMR designs “have achieved some milestones like preliminary regulatory approvals, construction, operation and grid connection, noting that two SMR projects have reached operational stage globally.” These are Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov, the world’s first floating power unit, which began commercial operation in May 2020 and China’s HTR-PM demonstration SMR which was grid-connected in December 2021. 

According to the report: “The international harmonisation of licensing process and regulatory requirements of SMRs will be crucial for speedy maturity of the designs, reducing time of construction and installation and optimise overall costs. SMR manufacturing on a large scale requires enabling frameworks such as policy, regulatory readiness, legal, safety, security and safeguards. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) is playing a crucial role in enabling the creation of these frameworks through initiatives such as the Nuclear Harmonisation and Standardisation Initiative (NHSI), SMR Regulators’ Forum, Coordinated Research Projects (CRPs), etc.” 

In an interview earlier with Nuclear Asia, the former Principal Adviser of India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and former Vice Chancellor, Homi Bhabha National Institute, Ravi Grover, said that India can make small modular reactors as it has the talent pool. He said that India has already built a small reactor that powers its nuclear submarine INS Arihant.   

Grover noted that in its initial stages, the Indian nuclear programme used small reactors of less than 300 MW capacity that were developed indigenously, and that Indian industry makes a substantial contribution in the manufacture of most reactors in India.   

“Indian industry has the capacity to make SMRs, if one considers that companies like the state-run BHEL, as well as L&T and Walchandnagar Industries in the private sector play a major role in reactor manufacture in India”, Grover said, pointing out that India’s first indigenously made 700 MW reactor at Kakrapar in Gujarat is now in commercial operation.   

In view of the incipient stage of work on SMRs in India, Grover feels that the commercial development of such reactors in the country is still around 10-15 years away. “The move to develop SMRs is a good one and in the right direction, but we are still in the beginnings. Lots of work is required to establish their techno-commercial viability”, Grover told Nuclear Asia. 

Chancellor of the Homi Bhabha National Institute and former Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Anil Kakodkar told Nuclear Asia that the ongoing decarbonisation efforts globally have helped create a larger market for SMRs.   

Regarding the Indian situation, Kakodkar said that since India’s energy needs are continually on the rise, the country needs big capacity addition and, thus, large nuclear reactors will continue to be relevant in India. 

Noting that India already possesses the capability to build small reactors as demonstrated through the light water reactor powering its nuclear submarine, Kakodkar said SMRs should be built indigenously working on the “Integral”-type design in which the major components are all placed inside a single reactor pressure vessel.    

Kakodkar also said that there is no unanimity of opinion as regards the cost benefit of SMRs over that of large reactors. Most economic benefits, especially lower capital cost, stated are valid for the n-th unit produced. Large-scale production of SMRs and initial orders for tens of units is required to achieve these economic benefits. 

India currently has 23 reactors with a capacity of nearly 7.500 MW in operation in the country. In addition, 9 reactors, with a total capacity of 6,700 MW are presently under construction. These 23 operating nuclear reactors contribute to around 2 percent of India’s total energy mix, which is far lower than the DAE’s vision outlined earlier of producing at least 20,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020, and at least 48,000 MW by 2030.