Japanese Disaster May Affect India’s Import of Foreign Nuclear Reactors

The country's nuclear power expansion depends on imports of equipment, including a new European reactor design under heavy scrutiny for safety risks

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. Credit: World Economic Forum

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NEW DELHI—India’s ambitious plans to quadruple its nuclear output by 2020, from the current 4,650 megawatts to 20,000 megawatts, may have taken a hit from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. 

The country’s nuclear power expansion depends heavily on imports of nuclear equipment, leveraging the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which was sealed in 2008, and the India-specific waiver that Washington pursued with the 45-member nuclear suppliers group (NSG) of nations. 

But in the wake of the Japan disaster, concerns are being raised about the safety risks of a new type of third-generation European reactor that India has selected for its next nuclear wave.

At the same time, Jairam Ramesh, minister for environment and forests, is urging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to commission homemade reactors only.

For Singh, who oversaw three years of difficult negotiations with U.S. officials and steered the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal through India’s parliament, such calls represent a major setback.

With the NSG waiver, India got permission to engage in international nuclear trade for the first time, making it the world’s only nuclear-armed country to have won that privilege without having signed the non-proliferation treaty.

For decades before that, India’s domestic nuclear energy program languished due to the international ban on supplying this country with nuclear equipment, technology and fuel — though there were some successes in developing reactors designed to use locally available thorium deposits as fuel.   

Once the waiver was signed, India declared plans to set up a series of mega-nuclear parks along its extensive peninsular coastline. The announcements threw open a $270 billion market for nuclear reactors.

But there were problems. 

United States suppliers such as Westinghouse and General Electric were leery of Indian nuclear liability legislation, passed in August 2010, which allows the state-run operator Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) to sue nuclear suppliers in the event of a mishap. 

State-owned French and Russian nuclear suppliers were quicker to strike deals with NPCIL because they are covered by sovereign immunity in the event of liability issues. But they ran into stiff opposition from Indian farmers’ groups and anti-nuclear activists.

Areva, the French supplier, landed the biggest of the deals to supply six 1,650 MW reactors for a nuclear park in the Jaitapur-Madban area of the western state of Maharashtra, at a minimum estimated cost of $15 billion. 

Areva and NPCIL were expected to sign a final contract in mid-2011, though a delay is likely. The original commissioning date set for the plant was 2018.

Following Crisis, 50 Prominent Indians Call for Nuclear Review

The more than 2,000 farming families and activists fighting the nuclear project since 2007 became embroiled in a seemingly losing battle with India’s government, which was allegedly using forcible land acquisitions, police brutality, arrests and eviction orders to move the facility along.

But then came news of the Fukushima disaster.

Suddenly, top members of India’s secretive nuclear establishment, who previously would not dare to speak with so-called “nuclear illiterates,” found themselves sparring with activists on TV talk shows, clamoring that nuclear energy was safe.

For his part, Singh declared that India’s nuclear energy program would not be affected by Fukushima.

But as critics of India’s nuclear power expansion grew to include P. Balaram, director of the venerable Indian Institute of Science and a member of Singh’s scientific advisory council, there were signs of a rethink.

Balaram’s signature appears on a list of 50 prominent Indians who are calling for a review of India’s nuclear power policy, and, pending that, a “moratorium on all further nuclear activity, and revocation of recent clearances for nuclear projects.”

Singh Calls for a More Transparent Atomic Agency

For many nuclear opponents, there was another important effect of the Fukushima disaster: a declared intention to increase transparency at the sphinx-like Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which enjoys protection under the Official Secrets Act, whose origins go back to colonial times.

To start, Singh has promised to make the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) a “truly autonomous and independent regulatory authority” that would follow the “highest and best international standards.” 

“We should bring greater transparency in the decision-making processes relating to our nuclear energy program and improve our capacity to respond to the public desire to be kept informed about decisions and issues that are of concern to them,” Singh said at a March 29 event honoring scientists and technology specialists.

This was no small thing, considering the many complaints about AERB’s lack of independence from the atomic energy department, the loudest of them coming from A. Gopalakrishnan, a nuclear scientist who once served as AERB’s chairman.  

“There is no reason why the civilian nuclear sector should be under the OSA [Official Secrets Act],” Gopalakrishnan said. “We are talking about a sector about which the International Atomic Energy Agency knows everything, and the Americans know even more because of the Indo-US deal.”

Gopalakrishnan explained that India’s purchase of six European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) from Areva for its Jaitpaur-Madban project was the result of French support for the special waiver that was given to India by the NSG in 2008.  

For Areva, which was hit hard by the financial crisis, the massive Indian deal was likely seen as a windfall. In 2009, it sought $4 billion dollars in a short-term bailout from French taxpayers when its shares plunged by over 60 percent.

Planned EPR Reactor Faces Possible Moratorium

But curiously, no nuclear regulatory authority of any country in the world, including France’s, has given final clearances for EPR reactors and none are operating today. 

The world’s first EPR reactor, which has been under construction in Olkiluoto, Finland, since 2005 is mired in litigation, with Finnish, French, British and U.S. nuclear regulators raising serious safety issues. 

Another one at Flamanville, Normandy, has been delayed and is running over budget. And last week, the president of the French Nuclear Safety Authroity, Andre-Claude Lacoste, was reported as saying that he could not rule out a moratorium on EPRs.

Meanwhile, China has bought two EPRs, but has moved completion dates to 2013 and 2014.

Writing in an op-ed piece months before the Fukushima crisis, Gopalakrishnan said that one of the “serious” EPR design flaws pointed out to Areva in a letter from French, Finnish and UK nuclear regulators was “the lack of adequate redundancy in the instrumentation and control system design.”

Other reported flaws include “poor fabrication of the pressuriser and the reactor vessel in Finland, cracks developing in base concrete at both sites … [and] defective welds in the containment steel shells,” he wrote.

“The four EPRs under construction have shown some of the difficulties of translating the projections about how fast and how well an EPR could be built into reality,” said Prof. M.V. Ramana in an e-mail response from Princeton University, where he is a researcher with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Program on Science and Global Security.

Ramana said the lack of autonomy in nuclear regulation in India indicates a much larger problem: the lack of independent sources of nuclear expertise.

“Between nuclear vendors who are anxious to sell their product, and the DAE that is desperate to import reactors in large numbers, there is no official body that policymakers can turn to for advice on whether a reactor design is safe or not,” Ramana said.

Ramesh: Fukushima Shows ‘Need for Regulatory Discipline’

Ramesh said he has written to Prime Minister Singh saying that in the interest of safety it is best for India to stick to homegrown reactors because they are easier to put under a regulatory regime.

“The most important lesson to be learned from Fukushima is the need for regulatory discipline and protocol in a nuclear program,” Ramesh said, adding that “it is not easy to build regulatory capability when there is a diversity of technologies.”

The minister said he would like to see the AERB reconstituted under a separate act of parliament to cut the apron strings of the Department of Atomic Energy.