‘Supply chain, skilled manpower, financial health of industry – challenges for 10 PHWRs’: Sekhar Basu

Sekhar Basu, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)
Sekhar Basu, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission

Dr. Sekhar Basu is an Indian nuclear scientist, who has handled the Nuclear Submarine Programme for the country; and presently, he is at the helm of India’s atomic affairs as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). In an interview to Nuclear Asia, Dr. Basu talks about the hitches in the setting up of Kovvada Nuclear Power Plant Project in Andhra Pradesh following the financial meltdown of US’ Westinghouse and Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant Project in Maharashtra.

The DAE Chief also highlights the challenges in the execution of the ambitious project to manufacture 10 Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors indigenously. Read the full interview here –

India’s civil nuclear cooperation with the US was breakthrough. However, project with Westinghouse is unlikely to be operational in two decades time. Westinghouse’s new buyers have also made it clear that they will not be constructing the reactor in India. How India is going to proceed such a scenario?

The Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement signed in 2008 paved way for setting of nuclear reactors in India by US Company Westinghouse Electric Company. Presently, discussions with Westinghouse are in progress to arrive at a viable project proposal for setting up these reactors at Kovvada site in Andhra Pradesh. The project will be setup on emergence of a viable project proposal (cost and credit terms), operationalization of reference plant and accord of administrative approval and financial sanction by the Government.

Civil Nuclear Collaboration with France for Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant was touted as another major achievement. What is the status of the project? Has an understanding over tariff been arrived at?

In pursuance of the 2008 Agreement on the Development of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy between India and France as well as the January 2016 roadmap of cooperation, an Industrial Way Forward Agreement between NPCIL and EDF for the Implementation of six nuclear power reactor units at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, India was signed on March 10, 2018 during the visit of French President to India. Once installed, the Jaitapur project will be the largest nuclear power plant in the world, with a total capacity of 9.6 GW. The parties involved are working on several other important aspects such as techno-commercial issues, cost and credit terms, operationalization of reference plant are being work out.

And are there any more future collaboration with Russia in the field of Civil Nuclear Cooperation? There were reports that about a site selection committee evaluating a second site in Andhra Pradesh other than Kovvada which was initially proposed?

Six more units of Russian VVER of 1200 MW capacity are planned at a new site, which is in the process of finalisation. These units are proposed to build and operated by NPCIL. The projects are to be funded by Government equity, joint ventures, market borrowings, Russian credit etc. Life time supply of fuel for these reactors are assured by the supplier.

Department of Atomic Energy has a target to have 63GW of nuclear power capacity by 2032. However, poor quality and insufficient Uranium has been a big impediment. Could you share more about the steps taken to achieve self-sufficiency in Uranium production?

India is committed to eco-friendly energy, and reducing emissions substantially. On May 17, 2017, the Cabinet approved the construction of 10 units of indigenous pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) of 700 MW each in fleet mode, apart from those under construction. On completion of the reactors presently under construction, and accorded sanction along with those in operation, the total installed capacity in the country approximately reach 23 GW. In addition, in cooperation USA, Russia and France a series of Light Water Reactors are being planned to be constructed towards achieving the targets of 63 GW of Nuclear Power.

To meet the future demands of Uranium, the Government has taken measures to augment domestic uranium supply by opening of new mines and processing facilities. Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMDER), a Constituent Unit of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has identified and evaluated substantial mineral resources of Uranium and has stepped up further exploratory work. These measures and steps taken would achieve self-sufficiency in Uranium production and bring energy security to the country.

Most countries are now seeing nuclear power as a “base-load” option, to be kept as back-up for the unstable, but infinitely less costly and eco-friendly solar and hydroelectric power options. In 2016, for example, global wind power output grew by 16 per cent, solar by 30 per cent, but nuclear energy only by 1.4 per cent. In the light of this, where do you see nuclear energy in Indian energy matrix?

The demand for energy in India is growing because of population growth and a developing economy. Energy planners always look at the basket of energy resources taking various factors such as suitability for meeting base load requirements and peak demands, uninterrupted and intermittent nature of energy resources and the requirements of concentrated and distributed forms of energy under consideration. The importance of nuclear energy in providing clean and uninterrupted electricity, particularly in areas of concentrated demand, is well established. The optimum mix of different forms of energy is finally decided by the above factors and the economics of production and distribution costs of power from different resources.

There is no conflict between renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and nuclear as they have complementary roles to play in supplying energy in the distributed and the concentrated form meeting the respective demands. Simple calculation will indicates that the intermittent energy supply options cannot give power supply 24 x 7 without electric storage system. If one looks into this aspect in detail, it will be obvious that intermittent energy options are clear options but not cheap. An appropriate combination of renewable and solar power will enable the country to provide sufficient quantity of clean energy for fulfilling the aspirations of our people in a fast growing economy without causing any adverse effect on our environment. We will also be able to fulfil our commitments to the world for the reduction in CO2 emission.

Diversity of approaches are needed in planning energy security for any country depending on their needs and India in particular would make efforts to achieve 63 GW installed capacity based on nuclear generation by 2032.

The Indian Government last year announced 10 Pressurized Heavy Reactors to be constructed in Fleet Mode to re-invigorate the domestic industries. What are the challenges you envisage in execution of the project?

The Cabinet has given its approval for construction of 10 units of India’s indigenous Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR). The total installed capacity of the Plants will be 7000 MW. The 10 PHWR project will result in a significant augmentation of nuclear power generation capacity in the country. With likely manufacturing orders of close to 70,000 crore to the domestic industry, the project will help transform Indian nuclear industry by linking our goal of a strong nuclear power sector with our indigenous industrial capacities in high-end technologies. This Project will 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 ensure continuity of order strengthen India’s credentials as a major nuclear manufacturing powerhouse.

Major issues involve timely regulatory clearances for site and local issues relates to site.

The challenges are Procurement and contracting; Supply chain management such as Heavy Forgings; Skilled Labour/Human Resources; the maintenance of R&D development capacity in the industry with reference to nuclear; availability of the required expertise and skilled workforce; Public acceptance and effective project management. Financial health of major Indian industry participating in construction activity is also an area of concern.

When is the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is expected to go critical? And what about the plans to build future fast breeder reactors?

Major construction, equipment erection and cold commissioning have been completed for Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) have been completed. Certain additional assessments and checks on the installed equipment, as matter of abundant caution and as per the increased regulatory requirements owing to First of its kind reactor in the country are going on. Presently hot commissioning with sodium is in progress and will expect to make it critical in this year.

Two more Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR1&2) of 600 MW capacity each are planned to be constructed at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu.

A small underground research laboratory was established in a Uranium mine in Jharkhand. Could you tell what is it about and how is it going to benefit scientific innovations in India?

The laboratory has been set up by the UCIL and Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP), Kolkata by utilizing the available infrastructure and underground facilities of the Jaduguda mine. This new physics laboratory at UCIL will be the first of its kind in the country after closure of a similar facility at Bharat Gold Mine in Kolar (Karnataka) in early 1992.The present lab is located at 555 metres below ground level and the maximum depth of Jaduguda mine at present is 905 metres. It is the second deepest operating underground mine of the country after Hutti Gold mine which is more than 1000 metre deep. This new laboratory will help scientific community to carry out most advanced research on dark matter – most of which are not known today. This new facility will help us to research about the unknown matters.

Many countries are focusing on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) to large grid systems. What is India’s take on this?

India is also looking at SMRs as a more efficient design and stands to benefit from plugging into international research efforts. These SMRs also display enhanced safety features and are suitable for non-electric applications, such as hydrogen production, heating and water desalination. In addition, SMRs offer options for remote regions with less developed infrastructure and for energy systems that combine nuclear and alternative sources, including renewables.