The whys of the slow pace of Indian nuclear power development


Following the 2015 climate change conference in Paris (CoP 21), among India’s stated goals to reduce the impact of global warming include achieving a 40 percent electricity generation capacity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 and 63,000 MW of installed nuclear capacity by 2032. During the decade preceding the CoP 21 meet, the year 2008 was an important landmark in India’s clean energy programme when the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) of 48 countries adopted a policy of civilian nuclear cooperation with the South Asian nation. Following this, India has entered into civil nuclear agreements with 14 countries, including the US, Russia, France and Japan for exchange of expertise and technology. India, however, still continues to be denied membership of the NSG, despite the willingness of most member states.

This provides the backdrop to the puzzle of India’s nuclear energy curently contributing to only 2 percent of the country’s total energy requirements, with a total of 22 operable reactors, and seven more under construction. Nuclear Asia spoke on the issue to the chairman of Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) National Council on Infrastructure Vinayak Chatterjee, who elaborated on the reasons for the country’s modest progress in nuclear technology development since the announcemet of the historic US-India Civil Muclear Agreement in 2005, which paved the way for India’s return to global nuclear trade after being cast out following her exploding of a nuclear device at an underground site in the Rajasthan desert in 1974.

Nuclear Asia had earlier spoken to the former Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Anil Kakodkar, who played the key role in the protracted and difficult negotiations with the US officials before the final signing of the US-India nuclear deal in 2008, on issues coming in the way more vigorous pursuit of civilian nuclear energy in the country. Kakodkar said he was able to take the bilateral talks to a successful conclusion because he had the full backing of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, although the stability of his government came under severe strain on account of the agreement because of opposition from within the ruling alliance – the Left parties.

Chatterjee, who also heads the private sector infrastructure conglomerate Feedback Infra Group, pointed out that the share of nuclear power in India’s total installed electricity generation capacity has actually fallen since the final signature of the US-India agreement, from 2.9 percent in 2008 to the current 2.5 percent. The share of nuclear energy in total electricity generated has risen by only one percent in the last decade, wheras the share of coal-fired thermal power during the same period has gone up 3 percent. India’s nuclear power capacity from 22 running reactors in 7 nuclear power plants (NPPs) currently stands at a little over 6,600 MW.

According to Chatterjee, substantial blame for this state of affairs can be attributed to the governance structure of the nuclear sector in the country. “The main pillars of this structure – the AEC and the government’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) – have tended to face less oversight and have reported directly to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), leaving them less accountable than otherwise”, he said. “Besides, the regulator AERB (Atomic Energy Regulatory Board) reports directly to the DAE, thereby compromising regulatory independence”, he added.

The other major factor that has hampered civilian nuclear energy development in the country since the US-India agreement, the CII expert said, has been India’s nuclear liability law which makes equipment manufacturers, rather than the NPP operators, liable in case of an accident, which made many manufacturers wary about enetering into an agreement.

Chatterjee said the third crucial hurdle for nuclear development has been the rising capital costs of this clean technology, which has led to projects getting stalled worldwide, at the same time that costs of renewable energy generation – solar and wind – have fallen steeply, leading to a dramatic three-fold rise in their share of the country’s installed capacity in the last decade, helped by plummeting tariffs.

According to Kakodkar, the emphasis on solar and wind is only a partial answer to the situation. “Nuclear energy, which is the only non-fossil source able to meet both base load energy demand and sustainability requirements, must be implemented on a large scale to meet the India’s carbon reduction goals,” he said.