This story is part of an ongoing Forum on Energy series on nuclear energy in emerging markets across the globe. See more entries here.
With more than 1.2 billion people, the Republic of India is the second-largest nation in the world, behind only its East Asian neighbor, China. While the World Bank classifies India as a lower-middle income economy, it is also in the midst of rapid economic growth that began with sweeping reforms in 1991.
This rapid economic growth was accompanied by rapid energy consumption — India is the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer, behind only the United States, China and Russia. From 1990 to 2011, India’s primary energy consumption more than doubled to almost 25,000 picojoules (PJ), while the 1052 billion kilowatt hours gross generated in 2011 was triple the 1990 level. Nuclear energy is the fourth-leading source of energy in the country — supplying 3.7 percent, or 20 billion kWh, in 2011—behind coal (68 percent), gas (15 percent) and hydro (12 percent).
However, India’s continued dependence on imported energy resources also leaves it at a heavy disadvantage when it comes to meeting its fast-increasing energy demands, and its per capita energy consumption is far lower than that seen in other developed countries. In July 2012 the country suffered the largest blackout in its history when approximately 670 million people — or about 10 percent of the entire global population — were left without power on what would later be called Blackout Tuesday.
The state-owned Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd. (PGCI) maintains and manages all five of the nation’s electricity grids — Northern, Eastern, North-Eastern, Southern and Western — and all but the Southern grid are connected. A 2007 report concluded that India would need to spend $120-150 billion over the following five years to maintain its power infrastructure, while a 2012 report pegged its annual losses at $12.6 billion.
India has a long history of utilizing nuclear energy for the civil generation of electricity. Its first nuclear reactor was Apsara, which went active at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay in August 1956. Apsara was also the first nuclear reactor in Asia, and was constructed by Indian engineers with assistance from the United Kingdom. It was also the first nuclear reactor in Asia.
In 1957, India formed the Atomic Energy Establishment in Trombay, near Mumbai, which would be renamed Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in 1967. In 1958, the nation established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in the Department of Atomic Energy as its main nuclear policy body.
The country’s first imported reactor came from Canada in 1956. A variation of the 40 MW NRX reactor, the CIRUS reactor went online in July 1960 at a total cost of $17 million, $9.5 million of which was paid by Canada. The reactor would stay online for half a century until it was decided to permanently shutter it in 2010. CIRUS was followed by the 200 MWe RAPP-1 reactor going online in 1974 (although it was ultimately downrated to 100 MWe) and RAPP-2 in 1981. RAPP-2 was originally meant to go online much earlier, but was delayed after Canada withdrew its assistance in 1974 when India performed its first test of a nuclear weapon at the Pokhran Test Range in Rajasthan. The plutonium used in the “Smiling Buddha” nuclear test came from the CIRUS reactor.
While India claimed the test was solely for peaceful purposes, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was formed as a direct response, as the nation was not recognized as a nuclear-weapons state by the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The new coalition of nations further emphasized the importance of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
A second result of the nuclear test was that, because of the lack of partnerships with countries such as Canada and the United States, India was left to develop its nuclear energy program largely in isolation, with little fuel or technological assistance from other countries. Those independent efforts included everything from uranium exploration and mining to fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design and construction, to reprocessing and waste management.
Up until the 1990s, India’s reactors had among the world’s lowest capacity factors. However, by 1995 capacity had reached 60 percent and by 2001-02 it had climbed to 85 percent. In 2008, the NSG reached a new agreement that allowed countries to sign civil nuclear cooperation agreements with India; India has since signed on to partner with the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Namibia. Then, in 2013, India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission reached a bilateral safeguards agreement that would permit trade in nuclear materials and technology for facilities that followed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. India is negotiating a similar trade agreement with Australia, which like the Canada agreement will focus on uranium supply, as small domestic reserves of the essential nuclear material mean India is largely dependent on its importation.
Current State of Nuclear Energy in India
At present India has 21 operable nuclear reactors and six under construction. As recently as 2010, its government announced a plan to meet its growing energy needs by increasing its nuclear power capacity to 63,000 MW in 2032. The May 2011 events at Fukushima Daiichi helped launch a nationwide debate over whether nuclear energy was India’s best alternative to fossil fuels, but the government continues its progress despite the concerns.
In late 2012, the government announced a tempered plan to utilize domestic and foreign technologies to increase its nuclear capacity to 20,000 MW by 2020, according to Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) Chairman and Managing Director KC Purohit. The country capacity at that time was 4,800 MW. In addition to its own ability to build 750-750 MW Heavy Water Reactor facilities, India announced its intention to import nuclear technology from the United States, France and Russia.
In June 2012, the United States and India announced plans for the U.S. company Westinghouse to construct an 1100 MW, AP1000 reactor in Gujarat. The deal was dependant on Nuclear Regulatory Commission certification of the AP1000; the U.S. State Department’s decision to allow technical negotiations to proceed; and assurance from Westinghouse that only its U.S.-based operations — and not a Japan-based entity — would be involved in the nuclear endeavor. Approximately one year later, India and Japan also agreed to a landmark major bilateral cooperation deal on nuclear energy collaboration. The deal will spur economic opportunity and promote national security safeguards. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “Our discussions were guided by the fundamental belief that at the time of global uncertainties, change and challenges, India and Japan are natural and indispensable partners.” The deal will provide Japanese nuclear technology firms such as Toshiba Corp and Hitachi Ltd access to India’s fast-growing market, where hundreds of millions of people still live without electricity.
Challenges and Opportunities Ahead
- Anti-nuclear Sentiment — As they did in many other countries across the globe, the events of Fukushima called into question the future of nuclear energy in India. There were even protests — against both the French-backed 9900 MW Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in Maharashtra and the Russian-backed 2000 MW Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu — while the government of West Bengal has refused permission for a proposed 6000 MW facility near the town of Haripur that would be home to six Russian reactors, and a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed at the Supreme Court against the government’s civil nuclear program. However, the court said it had no expertise in nuclear matters and declined to order the government to stay the construction of nuclear reactors.
- Lack of Resources — At present India’s continued nuclear program is largely dependent on importing nuclear materials — such as uranium — from other countries. While the 2008 NSG decision does allow them to now sign civil nuclear cooperation agreements with the countries experienced in nuclear energy, India is also very interested in new sources. Along with China, India is looking into the feasibility of utilizing thorium as the primary fuel for nuclear reactors, as it is abundant; mixable with plutonium and uranium; and able to create a self-sustaining reaction that can run for years.