Business India, Special Report, April 5-18, 1999
Reaching a Critical Mass
For energy-starved India, nuclear power is proving to be an economic necessity that needs governmental support. Private sector too can get seriously interested in it if long-term debt instruments can be introduced for this sector.
The sun rises in the east for nuclear power. No, it is not a -parody of a Maoist hymn of Cultural Revolution vintage. Suddenly things are looking up for nuclear power. And it is mainly due to developments in Asia. How did an industry that was assailed as a "sunset industry" make this turnaround? No new reactors are being built in Germany, US and Nordic countries. But that is a superficial view, because hardly any power units have been added in these energy saturated economies recently and the discovery of cheap gas has led to marginal additions of a few gas-based projects.
But at the turn of the century, power hungry Asian economies are adding thousands of megawatts of nuclear power. South Korea, Japan and China have 15 reactors under construction that will add a handsome 13,000 MW. Another 22,000 MW are being planned for the future (see table Nuclear power programmes in Asia). The primary reason is, like India, these economies are also highly dependent on imported oil and gas. Naturally, they want to diversify their energy sources, so that they would not be caught on the wrong foot, as world fossil fuel reserves deplete in the 21st century. In fact, it has become abundantly clear now that each country has to prepare a long-term energy plan based on its energy reserves and aspirations. There can be no global blueprint.
Nuclear Power Corporation: High Wattage Performance
Particulars 1995-96 1996-97 1997-98 1998-99
Generation 7,983 9,071 9,618 10,189
in million units
Plant load factor 60% 67% 71% 73%
Income in Rs crore 925 1,233 1,285 1,400
Net profit in Rs crore 152 253 267 288
Due to its capital-intensive nature and relatively long project execution time adding heavy interest during construction, some have argued it to be uneconomical. These arguments gained some credence due to teething problems of the early reactors built in India and elsewhere. In India, mastering a new technology when all outside help was denied, took time. Developing a decent time frame for the manufacture and erection of complex equipment required new project management skills. Training the nascent Indian industry in learning high precision, zero defect manufacture had to be carried out painstakingly when there was no great economic incentive to do so.
These efforts have now paid off not only in developing a decent nuclear industry but developing high precision fabricating skills that have come as a boon to engineering companies like L&T, Godrej, Walchandnagar, BHEL, MTAR and others in these days of global competition. The civil construction involved in a nuclear station has also been mastered by companies like Hindusthan Construction and ECC. As newer safety measures are added to make reactors earthquake proof, flood proof, direct air crash proof, and worst case scenarios are added new sturdier designs are being made of containment domes involving pre-stressing. Some of these have taken time to fall into place. For example, the pre-stressed inner containment dome at Kaiga station of the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) under construction partially collapsed due to certain design errors. Failure analysis, design reviews took almost three years and the new design needed the use of high performance concrete (M-60) which had never been used in India before. The developmental work took away valuable money and time. But once it was done the domes at Kaiga and Rajasthan for four new reactors under construction have come up in breathtaking time. Two reactors are undergoing final tests before fuelling and going critical in July 1999. Two more will do the same in 2000. The operational engineers at NPC also had to get focused and learn to operate power stations at high capacity factors while taking care of safety inspections and procedures. Today they have shown that they can do it. The long dark night seems to be over for Indian nuclear power.
"My chief focus after I took over has been to constantly remind the operational team that in the final analysis we are a utility company and as such our performance will be judged by how much and how safely are we producing power. That is what has led to continuously rising capacity factors in all our plants. What the company needed was clarity of roles, stress on manpower training and stress on achieving targets .. Once that was brought in, all stations are performing excellently," says Y.S.R. Prasad, chairman and managing director of NPC. This approach has mattered a lot. What is going to convince the government to allocate funds to this sector is finally hard-boiled economics. After all the projections are done and strategic energy plans are discussed threadbare, one has to look at profits and return on investments.
NPC has consistently performed well in the last three years and might yield a net profit of over Rs325 crore on a slim base of 1,820 MW and that too from power that is sold for 82 paise per unit at Tarapur to Rs2.50 at Kakrapar. NPC has thereby become the envy of other power utility companies in public or private sector. (see table High Wattage Performance)
Today India's meagre oil resources are under tremendous pressure. Bombay High production has fallen in this decade and no new fields have been discovered. In fact the pressure to produce more oil in the 1980s led to flogging the wells regardless of prudent reservoir management. This led to alarming rise in gas to oil ratio and water to oil ratio. As better sense prevailed production came down from 21 million tonnes in 1986 to 14 million tonnes in 1992-93. Only the commissioning of Neelam fields led oil production to rise back to 18 million tonnes in 1996. It is clear, however, that even to get oil at this level the fields have to be nursed properly using better oil recovery methods.
Nuclear power programmes In Asia
(as of Dec 31, 1996)
Country In operation Under construction Planned Total
China 2.3 GW 3.2 GW 7.2 GW 12.7 GW
India 1.8 1.9 4.9 7.6
Indonesia 0 0 1.8 1.8
Japan 42.7 3.6 6 52.3
N.Korea 0 0 2 2
Pakistan 0.1 0.3 1.5 1.9
S.Korea 9.6 6.1 8.2 23.9
Taiwan 5.1 0 2.7 7.8
Total 61.6 14.8 34.3 109.9
(Source: "'Nuclear Energy in Asia's Power Sector' - The Atlantic Council, December 1997)
The situation with coal is blacker.
The quality of coal is getting worse. The ash content has reached 40 per cent in many mines which led a wit to remark that if the ash content crosses SO per cent Coal India may have to be renamed as Ash India. The higher ash content is leading to increasing cost of beneficiation (reducing ash content by washing the coal) and thus fuel cost. In a coal-based thermal power plant a major share of cost of power comes from the fuel. Thus thermal power is becoming more expensive. Even then ash content in coal used in thermal power stations is large enough to create serious environmental problems. lf one uses imported South African and Australian coal which has much higher calorific content, as many steel makers are doing, then there are other problems. Such coal has higher sulfur content and there is the additional cost of installing proper anti-pollution equipment, so that environmentally harmful nitrogen and sulfur oxides, that cause acid rain, are not poured into the atmosphere.
There is growing concern about greenhouse gases disturbing global weather. Some scientists are already postulating that it is not a distant prospect, but that the unusual weather patterns found recently are a direct result of global warming. In OECD countries there are serious moves to impose carbon tax of about $130 per tonne of carbon added to the atmosphere on polluting industries. lf such moves continue then even in developed economies coal-based power will become 50-100 per cent costlier while combined cycle gas-based power will become 25-50 per cent more expensive.
Nuclear power stations however are already sticking to international radiation emission norms and the costs of waste disposal are included in the project cost. Thus increasingly the balance is tilting in favour of nuclear energy. What was once considered as a future option in the 21st century is fast becoming an option here and now. In energy starved India's case, where the nation would have to start paying electricity bills in dollars to independent power producers like Enron, nuclear power stations built in India will not only provide jobs but will consume Indian fuel which will not be linked to the exchange rate. Thus, economic logic heavily favours more investment in nuclear power.
This realisation is sinking in government circles as well. In a report titled 'Generating Capacity Planning Studies in India' dated November 1998 the Central Electricity Authority has recommended an addition of about 5,000 MW each of nuclear power in the Ninth and Tenth Plan periods. An optimal capacity mix proposed in the report for thermal hydro and nuclear is63 per cent, 32 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.
The main problem nuclear power faces is high capital cost. There is the additional problem of no soft loans available from the World Bank as is true for thermal power. Debt raised from the market is not long term enough besides being expensive. "The borrowing with maturity period less than 10 years puts pressure on the liquidity position of the company as repayment obligations occur in the initial phases of the operation," says Prasad. "The only way out is to introduce long-term debt instruments," he adds.
A study done by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, shows that at a discount rate of 5 per cent (without considering carbon tax and other environmental taxes), nuclear can easily compete with thermal power whereas at a discount rate of 10 per cent thermal becomes more competitive. A more detailed study done by NPC, for 2x500 MW nuclear and thermal units (at a distance of over 1,200 km from pithead western and southern India, which would be commercially available in 2004-05 AD, assuming 1997-98 price level) nuclear power will be cheaper at 5 per cent discount and will level with thermal only at 6.7 per cent. This shows that higher capital cost is the main problem with nuclear power as it is known that fuel costs are anywhere between 12-17 per cent for nuclear while they are as high as 40-50 per cent for thermal. Moreover coal prices are likely to go up faster than nuclear fuel prices in the future.
Though Electricite de France and Modis had publicised their intention of entering the Indian nuclear power sector, no serious proposal seems to have reached the Department of Atomic Energy. This has also been confirmed by R. Chidambaram, chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. "We would like to investigate the possibility of joint ventures but problems will continue till long-term soft debt is not available to this important section of energy infrastructure," says Prasad. It is clear that such instruments cannot come into being from funds available to banks and financial institutions. Only when insurance companies and provident fund trusts are allowed to invest in such infrastructure projects can long-term cheap funds flow into nuclear power. Then NPC'S technology and operating experience, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board's supervision, private sector's better project management skills can all blend into a highly efficient nuclear power programme.
Major industrial disasters like Bhopal and Chernobyl in the 1980s swung public perception from the blind faith (of the 1950s and the 1960s) in scientists to bursts of irrationalism and anti-science. Peddling "alternate this" and" alternate that" became fashionable and later even big business.
Many well meaning souls forgot that the standard of living achieved by a fairly large section of people on this planet and aspired to by an even larger number of people especially in Asia and the developing world, requires large scale industrialisation and highly interdependent social production, which in turn needs abundant energy. At the end of 1990s, economic realities are sinking in and safety features in nuclear reactors too have greatly improved. It goes without saying that unlike Europe and North America's industrial revolutions, which were environmentally dirty, the newly industrialising Asia could leapfrog into more environmentally benign technologies. Nuclear power is proving to be one of them.
All that you never wanted to know about Nuclear Engineering
• Fission: Splitting heavy nucleus of say uranium using a slow neutron to "produce smaller daughter nuclei, plenty of energy and many more' neutrons.
• Chain reaction: If the fission of a single nucleus can produce one more neutron which can be used to split another nucleus and so on, then the reaction can be self-sustaining and is called a chain reaction ..
• Isotope: A chemically identical form of an element but with slightly different atomic mass. like U 233, U 235 and U238'
• Heavy water: Hydrogen has a heavier isotope called deuterium. Water formed by combining heavy hydrogen and oxygen instead of ordinary hydrogen is called heavy water.
• Moderator: A material such as ordinary water, heavy water or graphite that is used in a reactor to slow down fast neutrons thus enhancing the fission rate.
• Uranium: The heaviest element normally found in nature. It has three main isotopes: U 233 - a fissile material but not found in nature. It has to be artificially produced by bombarding thorium with neutrons. U 235 - a fissile material but natural uranium contains only 0.7 per ·cent of this isotope. U 238 - a non-fissile material, which constitutes 99.3 per cent of natural uranium. It can however be used to produce PU239 by bombarding with neutrons ..
• Plutonium: Not a naturally occurring element. One of its isotopes, PU239' is fissile while others are not. Plutonium can be produced by bombarding U 238 with neutrons.
• Thorium: A rare earth element found naturally in the beach sands of Kerala. It can be converted into fissile U 233 by bombarding with neutrons.
Heart of the matter
A nuclear power plant is similar to a coal-fired plant except for the way heat is produced. In a thermal plant coal or gas is burnt. In a nuclear plant, the fuel consists of uranium or plutonium whose tiny nuclei (radius 10 -12 cm) are split, using a subatomic particle called the neutron as the scalpel. This results in the release of a large amount of energy. However, there is a substantial difference in the efficiency of the two processes. In fact, one ton of uranium can produce as much energy as 2.5 million tonnes of coal.
Natural uranium consists of two types (isotopes) - of uranium U 238 (99.3 per cent) and U 235 (0.7 per cent). However, only U 235 is fissionable. But extracting U 235 or increasing its percentage (enriching) is a highly expensive process, even though a power reactor needs only 3-4 per cent enrichment while a bomb needs very high enrichment (80 per cent and above). India's uranium reserves are limited to about 78,000 tonnes. So the choice in front of Homi Bhabha and his associates in the 1950s was to look for a reactor that did not need enriched uranium as fuel
Canada came up with such a reactor known as Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR), which uses natural uranium without enrichment while using heavy water as a moderator. Canada offered the technology at very attractive terms and even showed willingness to involve Indians to some degree in developing and stabilising the design. However, Canada built only one such reactor in Rajasthan and abandoned the other reactor half-way in pique after India exploded a nuclear device at Pokhran in 1974. Incited by the US, it cut off all further contact, aid and even information regarding nuclear matters.
Indian scientists had to, with great difficulty, develop capabilities to build and improve these PHWRS and then transfer the technology to a nascent industry. Indian engineering industry had no experience in large-scale precision fabrication. It could just about fabricate equipment for dairies, cement plants or small chemical plants. But today, the painstaking developmental work has paid off and companies like L&T, BHEl, Walchandnagar, Godrej, MTAR and others can willy-nilly produce not only the 220 MW reactors but the more modern 500 MW PHWRS as well.
PHWRS are the workhorse of NPC - an undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy - corporatised in 1987. It is estimated that the present uranium reserves are sufficient to produce 10 GW per year (1 GW is 1,000 MW) for 30-odd years. At the same time, the beach sands in Kerala contain more than 360,000 tonnes of thorium. In appropriate conditions, thorium can be converted to another fissionable isotope of uranium (U 233).
So the current wisdom in nuclear planning consists of producing about 10 GW of power by using PHWRS. The spent fuel of PHWRS can be reprocessed to obtain another fissionable material- plutonium (Pu 239). The plutonium produced is less than uranium consumed. But if we mix plutonium, uranium and thorium and burn them in a Fast Breeder Reactor, then more plutonium is produced than consumed and thorium is converted into fissionable U 233 as well - hence the name "breeder reactor". This U 233 produced in a breeder reactor can be mixed with thorium and again burnt in a reactor to produce power. Thus, in a three-stage programme, India's nuclear resources can be optimally utilised.
India has mastered PHWR technology and has moved ahead to design a 500 MW reactor on its own. But development of Fast Breeder Reactor technology is still at R&D stage at Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam. Meanwhile scientists at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre have also produced small amounts of U 233 by bombarding thorium and demonstrated the feasibility of the three-stage nuclear programme by building a small research reactor using U 233.
Interview: Nuclear power is ready to take off
"There is no single energy plan at a global level. Each country has to examine its particular conditions and devise one for itself. In India's case Nuclear Power has to be an important component. The learning curve is over. Our own R&D, Indian industry, trained manpower, etc have all reached a critical mass. The nuclear power programme is ready to take off", said Dr R.Chidambaram, chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, while talking to Shivanand Kanavi
How is the fund allocation for nuclear programme now?
The lack of funds during the Eighth Plan hurt the power programme. Now it is better. The funding has gone up from Rs1 70 crore during 1993-94 to Rs900 crore this year. This should continue during the Ninth Plan. Four 220 MW units are coming on stream this year and the next. Two 500 MW units are going to come up at Tarapur, and civil work has already started. We are hoping to get funding for another four units of 220 MW and four more of 500 MW have been planned but are yet to be sanctioned money.
What is holding up the Fast Breeder programme? Is it funds?
No, it is not funds. Technology development itself takes time. Now the Fast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam is functioning very well. A lot of R&D work has been done. The sodium coolant circuit is functioning well. Excellent burnout rates of 40,000-50,000 MW per tonne have been achieved. Now the 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor's design is being reviewed by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Once we get the go-ahead we will start making the prototype. It should be ready by about 2001 .
If there are snags in the Fast Breeder Programme then is there any way of using our thorium reserves?
The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) designed by Anil Kakodkar and his team in BARe will use a mixture of oxides of uranium and plutonium in the central zone of the core, while a mixture of thorium and uranium 233 will be used in the outer areas. So, that is one way to start using thorium even before we master fast breeder technology and go over to thorium-uranium reactors. AHWR is a very interesting design. It has not only advanced safety features but also uses light water as coolant.
It is believed that India can make bomb grade highly enriched uranium. So why can't we make reactor grade low enriched uranium and develop a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) - which is much easier to operate?
No comments on the first part of your question. If there is enough need for low enriched uranium then we can do it. It is not technologically beyond us. The issue is economic. Once we get more experience with PWRS by working with the two 1,000 MW Russian reactors which we are buying from the Russians, then we can go for PWR design as well.
There is a feeling that if India signs the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) then it will help the power sector. What is your view?
There is no question of India signing the NPT in its present form. If they are ready to change the NPT and let us sign it as a nuclear weapon power, then it is a different issue. We are ready for safeguards for any installation that has been built with external assistance. Other installations are off bounds. Just as the Chinese or any member of the nuclear club do. If these changes take place then of course there will be easier flow of technology, turnkey projects, fuel, etc. Even with meagre funding we have kept nuclear technology alive, since it is the technology of the future as far as energy is concerned.
Today we cannot access soft loans from the World Bank for funding nuclear power. Will that change if we sign NPT?
The World Bank is not funding nuclear projects anywhere. So to that extent it will not change by signing the NPT. But it is being increasingly realised that for developing countries and especially in Asia, nuclear power is an integral part of modernising the infrastructure. So even the World Bank might eventually change its stand.