Joining the nuclear renaissance

Issue 21 - Dec 2008

Dan Yurman

In October 2008 India’s relationship with the global nuclear industry changed fundamentally after the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the international body that controls commerce in uranium for nuclear reactors, agreed for the first time to allow India to acquire nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors. In a closely linked event, the US Senate voted 86-13 to allow US firms to export nuclear fuel and technology to India.

These two events have created tremendous opportunities for India to open the door to international investments in new nuclear energy infrastructure. Building a nuclear energy industry in India to support 20-40 GW of new power over the next two to three decades will take every bit of ingenuity and wisdom the nation can muster. It’s more than a moon shot. It is a trip to Mars.

Until October, India had lived for more than three decades outside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). This status severely limited its ability to get nuclear fuel for its installed base of less than 4 GW of nuclear power. None of its plants are larger than 500 MW, all are older and less efficient than current designs, and some have operated at half capacity, or even closed down, due to fuel shortages. 

On a recent visit to India, Hugh MacDiarmid, chief executive officer of AECL, a Canadian nuclear technology company, told the Globe & Mail that India’s history of isolation meant it has not kept pace with western nuclear technology. India has also paid a price with rapid increases in fossil fueled plants and accompanying air pollution as well as greenhouse gases.


The nuclear renaissance

What will India’s nuclear energy program look like a decade from now and what must it do to capitalise on tremendous opportunities to build and operate a dozen or more new nuclear power plants? To answer this question, it is useful to take the point of view of a metaphorical ‘Man from Mars’.

The first thing he will see is that there has been a world-wide nuclear renaissance in which countries as close as China and as far away as the United States are reviving the nuclear energy industry as an answer to the global warming crisis.

For instance, in the past year China has signed deals for two giant Areva European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs), four Westinghouse AP1000 Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) and two new reactors of Russian design. It has also built new capabilities in uranium enrichment and developed plans for spent fuel reprocessing.

In the United States there has been a rush of applications for licenses at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for projects worth at least $120 billion. In Europe two 1,600 MW Areva EPRs are under construction with one, the plant at Flamanville, scheduled to enter revenue service in 2012.

The Man from Mars may conclude that India is now ready to join this renaissance.