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New Delhi: The largest US nuclear delegation to visit India in five years held talks with senior Indian officials last week, exploring collaborations in research and development (R&D) and advanced nuclear technology, besides offering nuclear power plants in a range of sizes.

The delegation of a dozen people representing the US industry and government, headed by Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for the office of nuclear energy in the department of energy, was in India on 10-14 February to explore opportunities.

The group was in India under the aegis of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum.

The visit came ahead of US President Donald Trump’s 24-25 February official trip to India next week.

Besides collaborating with India in R&D and advanced nuclear technology, the US has offered nuclear power plants in three sizes—small modular, micro, and bigger plants of at least one gigawatt capacity.

The delegation held meetings with officials in India’s external affairs ministry and the department of atomic energy as well as representatives of the nuclear power industry in New Delhi and Mumbai. The US side included representatives of the uranium enrichment supply chain as well as reactor builders.

It was the largest US delegation to visit India since the two countries in 2015 ironed out differences that cropped up after India passed its civil nuclear liability law in 2010, pinning responsibility in the event of an accident on the equipment supplier rather than the operator of the plant.

Baranwal, who was appointed in July 2019, said the aim was to open a “new chapter" in India-US civil nuclear energy partnership. “We are moving forward with a lot of optimism," she said.

“Part of our visit is focused on R&D activities. So, it’s not just the commercial side of cooperation but also truly leveraging the R&D expertise that India has, as well as the US has, and in collaborating in that space as well," Baranwal said in an interview last week.

“There are a lot of really talented researchers in India and I think we need to continue our discussions and leverage that talent so that as we move forward to deploy advanced nuclear technology reactors we have the technology talent that can assist with deploying and operating those types of nuclear reactors," she said.

“And when I talk about advanced nuclear technology I mean not only the large gigawatt-size reactors such as Westinghouse AP-1000 but also the SMR (small modular reactor) technology and the even smaller micro reactor."

With energy-starved India’s huge requirements, Baranwal said the country could look at all three classes of plants. Small modular reactors that could be constructed on sites were less labour intensive and their capacities could be expanded if needed. Micro reactors could be used for small island communities.

Chris Levesque, president of TerraPower, which builds reactors, said “one of the motivations for coming to India has been the strong encouragement the American companies have been receiving" from the US administration. “We are looking to cooperate in nuclear R&D that is a very trusted relationship and that is what we are encouraged to do," he said.

The US is looking to set up advanced nuclear technology demonstration reactors in the next five-seven years. The new technologies would be for the US market, “but we hope to see them deployed globally and it will be really great to have Indian cooperation early in the process. So, the idea will be not just selling reactors in India. The idea would be maybe there is an opportunity for India to participate in R&D and that would really lead towards deployment in India some day and partial Indian ownership of that technology", he added.

Utpal Bhaskar contributed to this story.

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