The country’s nuclear power sector is set to undergo the biggest expansion in its history with the cabinet clearing 10 reactors on Wednesday. The 7,000 MWe (megawatt electric) added by these plants will more than double the country’s current installed nuclear capacity of 6,780 MWe. The 700 MWe pressurised heavy water-based reactors (PHWRs) to be built by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) mark a big leap for the state-owned outfit, which has been building smaller capacity reactors — mostly 220 MWe. It’s also a landmark in India’s indigenous nuclear-power programme, which was hampered by chronic fuel (uranium) shortages till the first decade of this century, despite indigenous expertise in PHWRs.
The decision on the reactors is germane to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to triple India’s nuclear power capacity by 2025. But it also owes much to the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement signed by then-PM Manmohan Singh and the-then US President George Bush in 2005. The agreement ended the country’s more than three-decade-long isolation in the international nuclear business. Its significance is borne out by the fact that, in 2008, just before the treaty took effect, India’s nuclear reactors were running at half their capacity. The treaty removed many sanctions imposed on India after the country had announced its nuclear weapons capability in 1974. More importantly, it restored international credibility resulting in the Nuclear Suppliers Group agreement of 2008, that opened the scope for sourcing fuel from other countries, including Kazakhstan and Russia. With the Modi government taking up the baton, India today has civil nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries, including France, Russia, UK, US and Japan.
Wednesday’s cabinet decision should also be evaluated in light of the country’s growing energy needs. India’s energy consumption demand has more than doubled since 2000. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2015, the country’s power sector needs to almost quadruple by 2040 to keep pace with electricity demand that — boosted by rising incomes and new connections to the grid — will increase at almost 5 per cent per year. The decision on the new reactors signals the government’s zeal to look beyond traditional sources of electricity. The economic spinoffs of the decision are also significant. The industry estimates that the projects will bring in manufacturing orders of Rs 70,000 crore and create more than 30,000 jobs. At the same time, the acumen of both the NPCIL in building the plants and that of its vendors, such as L&T and Godrej and Boyce, in supplying critical reactor components, will be tested.