The evaluation of India's nuclear energy programme has been difficult because Indian Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.) has covered the details of its activities by a thick veil of secrecy. The public and the press are left to speculate as to what is going on behind the scenes by the periodic statements issued to the public by the- chairman of the A.E.C. and its other functionaries.' Only the government is a confidant of the commission, but the government itself reveals little except utterly optimistic notes about the future of the nuclear programme in the Lok Saba and in other forums.
What is not in doubt, however, are the limited achievements of the programme ambitiously launched by the late Dr. Homi Bhabha in 1950. This was carried forward by the late Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who had drawn up an energy profile according to which India should have had 2,700 MW of electricity by now. In actuality, what has been commissioned by 1980 is a meagre 640 MW, of which the Tarpur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) produces 420 MW and the Rajasthan Atomic Power Plant (RAPP) produces another 220 MW. It may also be noted that the first plant at Tarapur was built in 1968 as a turnkey project by the General Electric Co. of the U.S.A.
In spite of the dismal achievement in the nuclear field in the past, the Department of Atomic Energy (D.A.E.) has drawn up an ambitious plan-of about 10,000 MW of nuclear power production by the end of this century. Out of this figure, nuclear power from plants under construction or 'near completion' amounts to about 1800 MW. These include a second reactor-at Kota called RAPP-II which was expected to be completed by 1975 but is now expected to start producing electricity by the end of this year. The capacity of RAPP-II: is also about 220 MW. The Madras Atomic Power Project (MAPP) also consists of two reactors. These also have about the same capacity as RAPP and are expected to produce about 420 MW of electricity. The atomic power station under construction is at Narora in U. P. and its basic design and power-generating capacity are similar to those of MAPP. This station, on completion by about 1984, is expected to produce about 470 MW of electricity.
In addition to these 4 atomic power stations (TAPS,.RAPP, MAPP and Narora), work is going on to construct a Fast Breeder Test Reactor at Kalpakkam near Madras which, according to the A.E.C. chairman, is expected to be completed in 2 years or so. This will however produce only about 40 MW. All put together, if things work out favourably, then by the end of 1984, India will have an installed capacity of energy generation from nuclear power of about 1,800 MW.
Without going into a discussion of how the unrealistic target of 10,000 MW of electricity will be achieved by 2000 A.D., let us take a closer look at the problems of achieving even the limited target of 1,800 MW, work on which is said to be at full steam.
The difficulties of obtaining enriched Uranium (in the ratio of 3:1000 of atoms of U235 and U238) from the U.S.A., despite contractual obligations are too well known to be recounted here. One of the consequences of this has been that the two units of TAPS have been running below their full capacities in order to conserve the supplies of fuel as long as possible. But, despite occassional brave talk that appears in print, there has been no clear indication as to how TAPS will continue in operation when the U.S.A. finally abrogates its treaty obligations and stops supplying India with enriched uranium1. The existing supplies will run out in a few years' time. What happens after that?
As reported in some sections of the press, one of the tasks given to the new Secretary of the D. A. E., Dr. Ramanna, seems to be to look for alternative fuel for TAPS. The public is left guessing as to what direction this search takes. Moreover, even if some alternate fuel is found, will it be compatible with the existing systems and design of TAPS? An important question is, will TAPS continue to produce electricity at its capacity of 420 MW? Presumably, India will seek foreign collaboration for TAPS when the supplies run out. Will this not create other unforeseen difficulties?
Whereas TAPS runs on ordinary water and enriched Uranium, the other atomic plants called CANDU (Canadian Deuterium Uranium) reactors all run on ordinary Uranium and heavy water. After the Canadians stopped their assistance in the wake of the 1974 Pokhran test, India has been forced to go it all alone. The engineers and other technical people have done a commendable job in mining, processing, reprocessing and fabrication of fuel and fuel rods, etc. The major hurdle, however has been the shortage of heavy water. After the Pokhran explosion, all essential nuclear supplies were denied to India, including the supplies of heavy water. Again, despite the optimistic pronounce-ments regarding heavy water, the actual production of it in the country is still very small and is saddled with many uncertainties. There are four operational heavy water plants of which the 14-tonne Nangal plant is the only one which is working at full capacity. The plant at Tuticorin has an annual capacity of 72 tonnes, but because of several problems has produced only 10 tonnes. The plant at Baroda and Talcher with a combined capacity of 130 tonnes have also been facing problems including shortage of electricity to run them and consequently have not produced any heavy water 2.
Thus, although the annual capacity of the operational heavy water plants is 215 tonnes, only about 25 tonnes are being actually produced. The requirement of the
1 This article was written before the recent developments on the Tarapur issue. As is well known by now, the U.S.A. has finally and formally abrogated its treaty.
2 According to a press note, the Baroda plant, with an annual capacity of 67.2 tonnes, has begun working from February this year.
RAPP-II unit itself is about 300 tonnes. Hence there seems to be no alternative but to import this commodity. Because of the Pokhran test, the only source for it seems to be the Soviet Union. Last year the Soviet Union had offered 250 tonnes of heavy water, and India has to accept this offer if the requirements of RAAP-II and MAPP-I are to be met.
Heavy water apart, even the supplies of ordinary Uranium for the CANDU reactors are uncertain. Each CANDU requires about 80 tonnes of Uranium fuel for an installed capacity of 235 MW. For the target of the 1400 MW (by 1984) energy production based on ordinary Uranium, this would amount to a demand of 480 tonnes of Uranium fuel per year. That quantities of this order will be available on a regular basis seems to be very doubtful considering that proven reserves of this element in India are very small and that an advance time of about 5 years for mining and fabrication of fuel rods is required.
In addition to the CANDU reactors, India is going in for fast breeders also to exploit the large resources of Thorium. The 40 MW Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam is being built with French assistance. The fast breeder requires an initial charge of 85% enriched Uranium and Plutonium. Plutonium can be extracted from the spent fuel of any of the atomic power plants and it is visualized that it will be obtained from the Madras or Tarapur plants. However whether India will actually be allowed to do so because of safeguard agreements is another matter. Then there is the limitation of reprocessing capacity. The CIRUS reactor at Trombay is an experimental one, and can reprocess limited quantities of spent fuel. Can it handle quantities on a commercial scale? Plutonium apart, there is the obvious difficulty of obtaining enriched Uranium. It is known that France is dragging its feet on supplying some essential components and enriched Uranium even for the FBTR. This may be because of pressure from the U.S.A. Suffice it to say that the fast breeder programme is beset with problems both technical and political, And any hope of generating large quantities of electricity in the immediate future is, at best, an uncertain proposition.
There seems to be no getting away from the fact that India's atomic power generation programme is crucially dependent on some foreign country or the other for the supply of some essential item. For Tarapur, this is enriched Uranium and for the remaining plants, the item is heavy water. If USA is insisting that India sign the fullscope safeguards or the N.P.T. before it can continue to supply Uranium on a regular basis, the offer of Soviet Union is also conditional upon India signing the extensive (though not full-scope) safeguard agreements.
If the limited present-day atomic energy programme is beset with uncertainties, both political arid technical, why then is the DAE going ahead full-speed with ambitious, plans of boosting it to a target of 10,000 MW by the end of the century? Except for a few critical articles that have appeared in the press, there has been almost no public' debate over the issue, and the only information domestically available is through whatever the government, the AEC or the DAE may periodically choose to divulge.
Pointed questions need to be asked especially because the opposition parties as a whole and eminent people in public life are keeping a strange silence on this issue. The first question relates to the running of TAPS. What is the position regarding the supply of fuel for Tarapur? Has there been any secret commitment from or understanding with some other country, possibly the USSR that will ensure supplies of enriched Uranium? If so, what are the conditions under which it will - be supplied? What is its cost? A related question arises because there have-been some reports that the Tarapur plant can run on alternate fuel. What is this alternate fuel and will it be compatible with the existing systems and design of Tarapur?
It is known that some multinationals like the General Electric Co., or Westing-house, engaged in the building of complete nuclear plants or some parts of it, are pressing their government for being allowed to export nuclear technology. This is particularly so after the effective opposition put up by the anti-nuclear groups in the U.S.A. It has been reported that in the U.S.A. there have been only 13 orders for nuclear plants since 1974. In the same period, (here have been more than 60 cancellations. In 1979 itself, there were 11 cancellations and no new order was placed. As a result of domestic opposition, pressure is being brought on the multinationals to look for alternate markets. France, West Germany and other countries are finding attractive markets for their nuclear technology in third world countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Chile and Brazil. These sales represent desperate corporate efforts to recoup losses incurred in declining domestic markets.
Last year, there was a concerted effort by a Western agency to sell the "nuclear blueprint for India's rapid industrialization in 40 years' time". According to it, India should go in for nuclear plants including CANDU-type of reactors and fast breeders and carry on research in fusion. The AEC Chairman himself has advocated research into practical applications of the fusion process. An interesting article, which appeared in the British magazine "New Scientist" advocated a three-tier nuclear economy. According to this scenario, there would be advanced nuclear countries which would take back the spent fuel from the reactors from the 2nd tier countries like India, Pakistan or Korea and reprocess it to extract Plutonium, thereby ensuring that the 2nd tier countries did not make bombs. In the last category would be those countries like Niger and Gabon which have Uranium for selling to the countries of the other two categories, but have no nuclear facilities in their countries.
With-this background of advanced nuclear countries conjuring up various scenarios to sell or exchange their nuclear capabilities, is it not pertinent to ask: what is their role in pushing forward our nuclear energy programmes? Are they not trying to find some outlets for their unused or underused nuclear capacities? Whereas France is going in for the 1,200 MW capacity fast breeder, it is assisting India in building the 40 MW FBTR. Is it because it wants to throw out its obsolete components and has found a convenient dumping ground in India?
Consider the cost involved -in- our entire atomic energy programme—the DAE has recently asked for Rs. 2,700 crores for the next 5'years'. "Consider also the DAE's past performance and that, as of today, energy produced from the nuclear plants comprises less than 3% of the total domestic production.' One should also bear in mind the innumerable political and. technical problems of obtaining and reprocessing fuel and of the availability of heavy' water, apart from ensuring environmental safeguards. Considering all this, should the DAE be allowed to jack up its nuclear energy programme, without discussing all the relevant issues threadbare? Does not the public have a right to know the answers to the various questions about which the Government and the DAE are tight-lipped? It is time that the people are taken into confidence and issues that vitally concern us are laid bare.
1. “The Nuclear Age"—by Frank Barnaby (Director, SIPRI), MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA, 1974.
2. Science For The People, Vol. 12, No. 1, Jan. Feb. 1980.
3. Sponsored supplement, The Times of India, Dec. 4, 1979.
4. Economic and Political Weekly, Sep. 13, 1980.
5. Rajendra Prabhu, in The Hindustan Times, June 5, 7, 12, 12, 13 and 14, 1980.
6. "Generating Atomic Power" by K. E. Khanna, The Times of India, July 15, 1980.
7. "Energy Stategy for the Eighties", by Dr. H. N. Sethna, 3rd Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Lecture, Nov. 20, 1980 (New Delhi).