Firing up the atomic energy establishment
The department of atomic energy has been the proverbial white elephant—long on promises and short on delivery
Ambitious and well-intentioned as it may be, the department of atomic energy’s (DAE’s) recent proposal to build 12 nuclear reactors to boost power generation in the country needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. In recent decades, DAE has been long on promises and short on delivery—the proverbial white elephant.
Yet it was not always so. When India’s nuclear establishment got under way in 1944—theoretical research had been going on since the mid-1930s, in European labs as well as in India—Homi Bhabha charted out a road map for the country’s nuclear programme for the rest of the century. In a country with appalling literacy levels, unspeakable poverty and little by way modern infrastructure, nuclear power was a bold gamble. Over the next couple of decades, a pool of talent was created, expertise was developed, and collaboration with advanced states sought. Though progress was not breakneck, it was, nonetheless, impressive. Apsara, which went critical in 1956, was Asia’s first research reactor; India’s first power reactor, Tarapur, came online in 1969.
With the exception of an eight-year gap between 1972 and 1980, DAE has been commissioning a reactor every two or three years. However, the reactors were notorious for having a low plant load factor (PLF)—in other words, they were inefficient. The popular belief is that this is largely due to unreliable supplies of uranium fuel but wear and tear and system malfunctions are as much to blame.
Second, India’s pace of nuclear energy growth is dismally slow. When France and the US decided to embrace nuclear energy in the 1960s and 1970s, the former built approximately 60 reactors within two decades and the latter about 100 in a similar time span. China has, at present, as many reactors under construction as India has built since independence. After the end of India’s ostracism from international nuclear commerce, the government ambitiously announced an increase in India’s nuclear energy generation up to 63 GW by 2032; this was drastically revised downwards to 27.5 GW. Recent statements suggest that the target may have been lowered further.
The inordinate delays from conception to commission have been fatal for the sector. The nuclear project at Gorakhpur, for example, was sanctioned in 1984 but is yet to be built; the power project at Narora took 20 years from 1972-92 to complete; the first two units at Kaiga took 15 years. The fast breeder reactor project is also languishing, while DAE has been promising to begin construction on the advanced heavy water reactor next year since 2003.
Cost overruns have also been ingrained into the Indian nuclear process—the Narora plant was sanctioned for approximately Rs200 crore but ended up costing four times that amount; the first two units at Kakrapar saw a 350% increase in cost from conception to commission. Every Indian reactor has seen similar cost spikes.
Technology assimilation has also been a tough nut for DAE. India’s third commercial nuclear power reactor, the 220 MW pressurized heavy water reactor (PHWR) at Rawatbhata, was built with technology from Canada. Since then, Indian scientists have indigenized the design and scaled it up to 540 MW and 700 MW but haven’t been able to cross the 1,000 MW mark as Canada has long done. Today, India needs larger reactors for economies of scale but DAE is yet to deliver.
To be fair, not all of the blame can be placed at DAE’s door. The international nuclear industry, for example, has been in a depressed state for a while—Westinghouse’s financial woes and Areva’s problems with steel forging were self-inflicted disasters. DAE has also had to navigate around uninspired leaders who just could not see the transformative promise of nuclear power. That has resulted in budgetary restraints, poor policies and little encouragement.
However, the atomic energy establishment does not seem to have offered much resistance to the government’s apathy; ministries normally jostle for increased budgets, influence, limelight, a place in national strategy, or a seat at the table. In some ways, the apathy has suited DAE’s own lackadaisical work habits. And the shrivelled ambitions of its Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd, which is responsible for the construction and operation of nuclear power reactors, hasn’t helped matters either.
Notably, the atomic community was also divided over the India-US civil nuclear deal—despite the lack of indigenous achievement in the country. It also went soft on the stringent supplier liability laws introduced in 2010 that were not in keeping with international industry norms and effectively made the Indian nuclear market a no-go zone for both foreign and domestic suppliers. Furthermore, there has been strong opposition from the atomic community to privatization under the bogey of national security—a convenient shield—against calls for transparency.
Responsibility for DAE falls on the prime minister’s shoulders. It is no coincidence that DAE’s brightest years were under Jawaharlal Nehru and the agency has been languishing somewhat ever since. Curing this white elephant is an easy process—without even getting into long-term, sustainable goals such as privatization, clear regulation and transparency, closer scrutiny by the prime minister and an adoption of the sector as he has done with solar power would go a long way in revitalizing a moribund agency.
Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in nuclear and diplomatic history.