Nuclear Power in India – history and complete scenario – 2008 NSG waiver – 2005 India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement

History and evolution of nuclear energy scenario in India

Post-independence India envisioned nuclear energy as a way to reduce India’s dependence on oil imports, and achieve energy security. The three-stage nuclear power programme was a strategy formulated by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s to secure the country’s long term energy independence, through the use of uranium and thorium reserves found in the monazite sands of coastal regions of South India.

Apsara (1956) was India’s and Asia’s first nuclear reactor, located at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai. First nuclear power plant of India was a Boiling Water Reactor set up at Tarapur, Maharashtra, imported from USA under an agreement in 1962.

India’s nuclear power programme progressed little between 1970s to 2000s due to international isolation and non-support from international technological powers after India conducted nuclear tests Pokhran I (1974) and then Pokhran II (1998). Nuclear power is still underdeveloped in India. Nuclear energy constitutes only about 2% of the energy mixture of India, while coal continues to be the major source of power (at around 60%).

2005 India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement (123 agreement) and the 2008 NSG waiver

The 2005 India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement ended international isolation of Indian civil nuclear programme. The 2008 waiver from Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) permitted India to import enriched uranium for reactors which are under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards (there are more than 14 such reactors). Following this, India has signed bilateral deals on civilian nuclear energy technology cooperation with several countries. 

Why does India depend on nuclear fuel imports ?

India depends on uranium imports to fuel its nuclear power industry, as it has very small uranium reserves. Thorium is attractive for India as it has about 25% of the world’s known thorium reserves, however, thorium is not economically viable due to much lower prices of uranium globally, and underdeveloped technology for using thorium.

India has already been using imported uranium for light-water reactors that are currently under IAEA safeguards. India imports mainly from Russia, Canada, Kazakhstan, France, etc.

Nuclear Liability Act 2010

The Nuclear Liability Act 2010 stipulates that nuclear suppliers, contractors and operators must bear financial responsibility in case of an accident.

The law has had an effect of discouraging foreign nuclear companies who wish to invest in India. To invite investments, India has, under bilateral agreements, given waiver from its liability law, to US and Russian nuclear agencies operating nuclear power plants in India.

The Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage 1997 seeks to establish a uniform legal regime for liability and compensation in case of a nuclear accident. India ratified it in 2016.

More related information:

Nuclear Fusion technology

  • Nuclear fusion technology is safer, and has a high future potential. However it is still in experimental phase (magnetic confinement plasma physics), as it is difficult to create an environment which can create sufficiently high temperature required for a fusion reaction.
  • India has a nuclear fusion research centre in Gujarat, and is a prominent member of ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, France) , along with EU, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and United States.

Types of nuclear reactors and associated technology

  • Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor
    • unenriched natural uranium as fuel
    • heavy water (D2O) as its coolant and neutron moderator*
    • attractive for India as it allows reaction with little or no enrichment
  • Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR)
    • being constructed at Kalpakkam, near Chennai, India. Indigenous.
    • Kalpakkam PFBR is using uranium-238, not thorium, to breed new fissile material, in a sodium-cooled fast reactor design
  • Light Water Reactors
    • Pressurised Water Reactor
      • most common form of nuclear power plants – in India, USA, Japan,
      • use ordinary water as coolant and neutron moderator
    • Boiling Water Reactors
      • second most common type
    • Supercritical water reactors
  • WWER or VVER – Water Water Energetic Reactor
    • developed by Russia
    • eg: Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, Tamil Nadu – VVER-1000 MW
  • EPR – Evolutionary Power Reactor (European Pressurised Reactor)
    • developed by France
    • eg: Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project, Maharashtra

* Neutron moderator is a medium that reduces the speed of fast neutrons, thereby turning them into thermal neutrons capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction.

Ongoing nuclear power projects:

  • Kalpakkam indigenous Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor.
  • Kudankulam power plant – VVER pressurised water reactor. Russian technology
  • Jaitapur power project – EPR French tech.

Under a trilateral pact signed in Moscow, Bangladesh’s first nuclear power plant (VVER-1200 type) is being set up by Russia, in association with India. 

Nuclear fuel:

Most common nuclear fuels are isotopes of uranium, thorium, and plutonium. In the universe, thorium and uranium are the only two radioactive elements that still occur naturally in large quantities. They are also called primordial elements, because they were formed before the earth existed, and still occur on earth. In contrast, plutonium is artificially synthesised.

Enrichment of a nuclear fuel involves removing non-fissile material and increasing concentration of fissile material. This is done using a centrifugal process.

123 agreement – Such deals, named after a clause in America’s export control laws, impose tough safeguards in return for American nuclear technology.

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