India’s Struggle for Nuclear Power

Modernizing is placing a demand for nuclear energy on India while opponents demand unfeasible alternatives.

Nuclear power plant Koodankulam under construction in 2009.

Power for all by 2012 was Dr. Singh’s campaign promise in 2009 when roughly half of India did not have access to reliable electricity.

The Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Mohan Singh staked the future of his first government on the Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear agreement and won. He also won the general election that followed. Two-and-a-half years into his second term, Dr. Singh is facing popular opposition against the very nuclear power that he had projected as the vital requirement in the emerging power scenario of a country where, as the nuclear energy proponents put it graphically, “roughly half of India’s population does not have access to clean energy forms and the other half, which has access, is not sure of its quantity and quality”. As 2012 now dawns, the Prime Minister’s campaign promise seems to mock him and his government as coal-based thermal power is in a spin and as little progress is made in new nuclear power plants due to popular agitations against the plants and among other causes.

At Koodankulam in the Tirunelveli district of India’s Southern-most tip, a two-reactor nuclear power plant built with Russian aid with a generation capacity of 2,000 MW at a cost of $3 billion had been surrounded by the local population who did not allow any work to proceed just when the two reactors were ready to go commercial. At Jaitapur in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra on the West coast, local people protested against building the French-supported, latest technologically advanced nuclear power plants that would add over 6,000 MW (actually it could be 6x 1600 MW) to India’s power capacity in another seven years. At Koodankulam, there are further plans to raise the capacity to 6,000 MW. India is short of uranium with only one deep uranium mine at Jaduguda in Jharkhand state, which is near exhaustion now. But extracting uranium ore from a new rich mine discovered in the Meghalaya state of North-East India cannot proceed because locals led by student activists have blocked progress.

The irony of these different demonstrations is that the Koodankulam opponents are largely fishermen who have received strong support from the local Catholic Church, and so too the Meghalaya agitation against uranium mining. The rightwing Hindu party BJP accuses the Church of acting against national interest at the behest of foreign powers. Yet the party closes its eyes to the fact that the Jaitapur protestors—again mostly made up of fishermen—are led by the right wing Shiv Sena, a more rabid Hindutwa party than the BJP. The ruling Congress has also said that outside forces through several anti-nuclear NGOs are behind both the agitations.


The Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement was a tremendous diplomatic success for Dr. Singh. It was signed during the George Bush administration, and a recent book by then National Security Adviser to President Bush Condoleezza Rice has revealed how even Dr. Singh was initially skeptical of persuading the Indian public to accept its terms, but the President won him over. America signaled the end of India’s isolation both from hi-tech imports and from the nuclear power community that Washington had spearheaded all these decades after the 1974 Pokhran-I nuclear explosion demonstrated India’s entry into the select group of international nuclear powers. Rival China had detonated its first bomb in 1964, and ever since Pakistan played the diplomat for the reconciliation of U.S. with China during the Nixon Administration, New Delhi had suspected that Islamabad was developing its own nuclear weapons capability with Chinese and North Korean collaboration while the Americans were looking askance. After the Pakistani nuclear weapons search developed into an Islamic Bomb quest under the drive of the Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. A. Q. Khan, more recent revelations about the CIA’s complicity in this has proved the Indian suspicions were not without substance. (Post 9/11, under U.S. pressure Pakistan has been forced to isolate Dr. Khan from its nuclear ring.) China provided the nuclear technology support while North Korea the missile technology support.

Contrarily, the Indian political establishment was for years against developing nuclear weapons even while supporting nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In fact in 1960 Dr. Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear energy programme, had written to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru suggesting India develop and test a nuclear weapon before the Chinese do and then join the nuclear test ban treaty as a weapons power. But the political environment in the region changed with Pakistan urging for reconciliation between Red China and the U.S. during the Nixon administration, and reports said the two were also colluding to gift a nuclear weapons program to Pakistan. In that context, Indira Gandhi gave the go-ahead to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to implement the earlier Bhabha proposal to develop an Indian response.

For several decades since 1974, India covered its nuclear weapons search as a PNEs—peaceful nuclear explosions for building dams and roads in hard rock territories. But the West was not fooled. India had consistently refused to sign the Nuclear Test Ban treaty and later the Non-proliferation Treaty and accused the nuclear weapons powers of forming an exclusive club and discriminating against others. It instead wanted a comprehensive nuclear weapons ban with the then small number of nuclear weapon countries dumping their weapons first.

Following the decades long impasse on this, most nuclear weapons and nuclear energy powers kept India in isolation, led by the U.S., denying access not only to uranium but also to any technology even remotely connected to nuclear power and missiles. The first nuclear power generation plant in India was constructed with U.S. aid during the Eisenhower era under the Atoms for Peace Plan, but with India refusing to sign the nuclear test ban treaty, the U.S. denied enriched uranium supplies to India. The Tarapur power plant used lowly enriched uranium in the Westinghouse, boiling-water-type reactors of 160×2 MW capacity. Dispute also arose on the disposal of the used fuel at the plant with the U.S. insisting on its return and India contending that the fuel was purchased by it and therefore it had all the right to use it as it liked. The decades long differences between India and the U.S. over nuclear material use coincided with a growing distance between the two countries over the international policies and specifically over the anti-Soviet direction of U.S. policy and U.S. support to Pakistan on its claim to Kashmir.

Unable to find a shortcut to highly enriched uranium without using the huge power and equipment needed to raise the quality of India’s low grade uranium, New Delhi worked on extracting plutonium from the spent uranium rods of its research reactor at Trombay set up initially with Canadian help. Plutonium was needed for two purposes: to fuel the second phase of nuclear power generation and to develop implosive weapons devices. The second purpose could be concealed under the first. The Tarapur plant imported from the U.S. for nuclear power generation was using low enriched (up to three percent) uranium, but under the nuclear energy plan devised by Dr. Bhabha, India intended to use its own locally available low grade uranium ore, raise its U-235 content from 0.06 to a little over one percent, and use this in a pressurized heavy water reactor. The technology for PHWR reactors was given by the Canadians. In fact, before the 1974 Pokhran-I detonation, Canada had set up the first of the two reactors in Rajasthan for using the domestic uranium and had imported heavy water to generate nuclear power. The plan was to build two 220 MW CANDU type PHWR reactors with Canadian technology and material aid. But subsequent to the 1974 event, the Canadians abruptly broke off all nuclear power cooperation with India leaving the two CANDU-type reactor plants at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan half done. Not only did India face international isolation on enriched uranium supplies but also a U.S.-led and CIA-monitored international ban on supply of any material for heavy water production. At one point, equipment from abroad for a heavy water plant at Talcher in Orissa was mysteriously jettisoned mid-sea.

However, the U.S. underestimated Indian scientists’ capability as India developed its own heavy water technology and improved upon what it had obtained from Canada on the CANDU-type reactor design and operation. Of course it paid a heavy price in both cost and time, but it learnt how to get around the international ban on supplies of both equipment and technology. At the time India and the U.S. agreed to bury the decades old acrimony over nuclear power, New Delhi had already demonstrated its ability to design, build, and run the 4,620 MW total capacity (plus two Tarapur reactors built by U.S. aid in the 1960s) of 18 pressurized, heavy water reactors—two of which were with higher capacity of 500 MW each and with a related heavy water production capacity. Four other PHWRs with 700 MW capacity and one proto-type fast breeder reactor of 500 MW capacity were under construction with India’s own technology while two Russian aided reactors of 1,000 MW capacity each had almost completed construction. In all, it was 4780 MW of working generation capacity and 5,300 MW of upcoming capacity totaling 10,080 MW.

As a subtext to this creditable achievement of Indian technology and engineering was the development of fast breeder reactors to begin the second phase of Dr. Bhabha’s plan for an Indian nuclear power program. This second phase was to extract plutonium from the spent reactor rods in the first phase of PHWRs and use a mix of uranium-plutonium for reactor fuel that would breed more such fuel. This fast breeder was to use the highly volatile liquid sodium as the cooling agent within the reactor. The reactor would also have a cladding of thorium contained in the coastal sands of the South-East and South-West sea coasts of the country in plenty. Dr. Bhabha envisaged that under the radiation from the fast breeder, the Thorium cladding would be converted to U-233, a high burn-up material that could start yet another fuel cycle to keep the Indian nuclear power program going for another 300 years or so. India, according to the Department of Atomic Energy, has 66,000 tons of uranium metal while it has 2,475,000 of Thorium metal. In the initial stages, the French with their own breeder reactor (Super Phoenix) were collaborating to set up a 40MW fast breeder test reactor at Kalpakkam near the Madras metro city (now renamed Chennai), train Indian scientists, and supply the plutonium-uranium mixed fuel for the reactor. But under U.S. pressure, the French abruptly cut themselves away from cooperation.

Indian scientists, however, did not demur, and over 20 years of research and development, they built and worked up the Kalpakam fast breeder test reactor even though they had to reduce its deigned capacity from 40 to 15 MW. This success emboldened the country to go for the earlier plan of a series of 500 MW fast breeders starting with a prototype. Meanwhile the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), named for the original doctor, had developed and fine tuned several related technologies including researching fuel rods for using thorium after its conversion to U-233. One of the latest developments was the Advanced Heavy Water reactor. Designed by Dr. Anil Kakodkar who at the time was the director of BARC and later was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), said it would “mainly use thorium based fuel and [had] several advanced safety features”. The compact, high-temperature reactor being designed in the country would be able to extend the core life up to a period of 15 years.


Earlier, BARC under Dr. P. K. Iyengar had designed and built a 40 MW research reactor that could produce many radioactive metals through conversion in the reactor. It could, among other things, generate ultra pure plutonium. This reactor, named DHRUVA, received considerable notice abroad as a sign of Indian capabilities in the nuclear field. Subsequently several sophisticated research reactors have been built. These include a 5 MW nuclear power-pack and a 600 MW high-temperature reactor for hydrogen production.

It was not only the end of the Cold War and the new power equation in Asia that got President Bush to offer American co-operation for India’s nuclear power without asking for a reciprocal end to India’s nuclear weapons quest and a stop of nuclear material production. It was also a recognition that the nuclear isolation imposed on India had not deterred the country from developing its own advanced technologies in both weapons and in energy use. The ground for this was set in 1998. In that year Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had made a bold decision to demonstrate India’s capability in designing and exploding a set of second generation nuclear weapons, including a hydrogen bomb, in the Pokhran-II underground explosions. That this could be done without even a hint escaping into the spy rings set up by the CIA and NASA around nuclear tests sites in the world was a shock that the U.S. took some years to digest.

Tellingly, Vajpayee had entrusted the job of Pokhran-II to a two-man team of India’s missile man Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam and nuclear scientist and head of atomic energy establishment Dr. R. Chidambaram. In the 90s, Dr. Kalam as director-general of the Defence Research and Development Organisation had already demonstrated Indian-designed and -developed intermediate range ballistic missile series Agni. In 2002, Dr. Kalam was the unanimous choice for the post of President of India.

All these factors went into the about turn of President Bush’s decision to offer civil nuclear cooperation to India. The turning point in this offer was that the U.S. was not insisting New Delhi give up its weapons program nor sign the non-proliferation and no-test treaties. The weapons program, India and the U.S. agreed, would be isolated from the nuclear power program and developed as a separate entity while the civilian part of the nuclear establishment would come under IAEA surveillance, but no new tests would be conducted. The civil nuclear agreement became a turning point for cooperation between both Dr. Singh who staked his government’s future on it and the U.S. president.

After all these big ticket international success and after Dr. Singh had to overcome the initial reluctance of India’s nuclear establishment at the U.S. offer and strong opposition from both the right wing and left wing parties, the Indian Prime Minister finds himself stymied by localized popular opposition to the burgeoning nuclear power within the country. The first concrete outcome of the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement is the proposed nuclear power plant at Jaitapur. Here French company Areva is proposing to build a four reactor complex of 6,000 MW of the latest design with many advanced features.

The location of this complex has angered local villagers, mostly fishermen, farmers, and mango orchard owners. Dr. Singh has also succeeded in getting Australia to drop its initial objections and supply uranium to India. In 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group had, under prodding from the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agreement (IAEA), agreed that India could obtain uranium without signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. These successes will be empty shells if popular agitations stall any progress in setting up nuclear power plants in new locations as at Jaitapur or prevent operation of completed plants as at Koodumkulam. The worldwide concerns over nuclear power raised by the disaster in Fukushima, Japan have intensified the people’s fears, especially in the coastal regions as at both Jaitapur and Koodaumkulam. Throughout the years that the Russian designed plants were under construction, the local opposition was a mild disatisfaction; but Fukushima has given it a new dimension, raising many hobgoblins of looming disasters.


Why does India need nuclear power? With a per capita annual consumption of a mere 650-700 kWh of power, India ranks 150th in the world per capita energy consumption table. But this also reflects low levels of development within the country, points out Mr. V. P. Singh, convener of the nuclear group of the India Energy Forum. He points out that for an 8 to 9 percent GDP growth, India needs to add about 700,000 MW of power by 2030. At present, the total generating capacity of 170,000 MW is largely dependent on fossil fuel resources, mostly coal with a rising use of gas. But the demand-supply gap in coal is widening in addition to India’s coal being largely of high ash content that needs to be either blended or washed for efficient use in thermal generation projects. In the 11th five-year plan that ends in March 2012, the total non-coking coal demand is estimated at 670 million tons, out of which the bulk of 550 million tons is for power generation. But the supplies fall short by 137 MT, which forces a dependence on imports. Import prices have gone up by 60 percent between October 2010 and March 2011 even though prices moderated subsequently as the world economy slowed down. However, the future scenario is not very reassuring despite plans to triple spending on coal mining to roughly $20 billion in the 12th Plan from 2012-17. Demand would rise to over one billion tons by 2016-17, and supplies of non-coking coal would be limited to 710 million tons, leaving a wide gap. The import of coal to fill this gap would actually cost roughly $32 billion; however, it is not the foreign exchange burden alone that is bothering the planners. It is the increasing level of competition between India and China in the international market for coal and oil resources that is pushing up prices and making the suppliers choosy.

The 12th Plan intends to add 100,000 MW to the existing generating capacity of 175,000 MW. In the 11th Plan, the hoped for 75,000 MW addition was reduced to 65,000 MW, and so actual achievement may drop further mainly due to the problems connected with the coal-based generation. The bigger problem is feeding the existing plants. In October this year, the public sector NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) has had to cut generation in many of its plants as the coal supply dwindled. Coal India Limited, again a public sector agency, confessed its inability to supply the projected 550 million tons of coal, and the deficit is around 100 million tons. This is happening at a time when the expected gas supplies from the major gas resource of the country, the Krishna-Godavari basin, has thinned though there is hope for the future with one more gas and oil resource coming up in the Barmer region of Rajasthan. Natural gas, however, has other uses also lined up—like fertilizer factories with the country facing a widening gap in fertilizer supplies too. Much would depend upon import of natural gas from Iran though the 20 year old proposal for an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline passing through Afghanistan is far from realization now for various reasons.

Hydro and Solar power are the two other alternatives, but they face problems. Hydro power has faced environmental and rehabilitation challenges at many places, and in any case, hydro-power availability is subject to a good monsoon year. On solar power, there is now a National Solar Mission that would provide a 500 MW grid-connected capacity by 2013, 3,000 MW by 2017 and 8,000 MW by 2022. The “domestic base is strong enough to sustain faster growth”, says Mr. Gireesh B. Pradhan, secretary for the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy Sources, but the problem is one of technological development that would make solar grid-connected power economic in generation, storage and transmission. “Cutting edge technology is needed”, he admitted while envisioning a 40,000 MW generating capacity through various renewable resources like solar and wind power for some future date. Even as an optimistic estimate, this is far short of the 700,000 MW predicted need for 2030. More hopeful reports on this front have since come out. On December 7, 2011, The Economic Times in India reported that “companies have bid tariffs as low as [$0.14] per unit for solar plants this year, encouraging the renewable energy ministry to say that the target of achieving grid parity or selling solar electricity at the same rate as power from other sources would be achieved much faster than earlier envisaged”. The grid parity date was earlier set at 2022 but it could be five years earlier. Tariffs from existing coal projects are around $0.11 per unit, but coal supply is increasingly becoming a problem and imports are getting costlier. Several of the nine proposed Ultra Mega Power Plants with private sector collaboration are awaiting firm coal supplies. In any case, there is a limit to the coal resource. Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the AEC, pointed out at a seminar of the India Energy Forum on November 14 of last year that even if the extra one billion tons of coal needed per year for future generations were available, the bulk of the railway system would be clogged by doubling the demand on the system. Indian railways already haul around one billion tons of freight per year.


The case for nuclear power is not based entirely on present problems of fossil fuel supply but the benefits it offers for the long term power requirement of the country, says Dr. Banerjee. These are crystal clear. In the first phase of nuclear power development, India might have to depend on imported uranium supplies. But unlike in the West, India is not ending the fuel cycle with the use of uranium. It is already extracting and will continue to extract more plutonium from the burnt uranium in the spent fuel rods and use a plutonium-uranium mix as new fuel in the fast breeders that are expected to come up in the next decade starting from the one that is at present under construction. The technology and safety of this fast breeder has been demonstrated by the 15 MW test reactor at Kalpakkam. The fast breeder could generate more fuel than it is fed, so the fuel cycle could continue until the original supply is exhausted over decades. As stated earlier, the third phase of nuclear generation with thorium begins with its conversion into U-233 in the fast breeders, and India has over 220,000 tons of thorium in its coastal sands south of the country.

Rebutting the argument that many countries like Germany have stopped further investment in nuclear power, Dr. Anil Kakodkar, former chairman of AEC says, “don’t compare India with Germany”. In Western Europe as a whole, the energy requirements have been largely met and only need incremental addition not wholesale additions as in India. “The power requirement in India is critical compared to any other country of this size and population. So we must shape our policy accordingly”, he says advocating “a mix of different sources with the contribution of nuclear source rising”.

On the fears generated by Fukushima that has further fuelled the Indian agitations against nuclear power, both Dr. Banerjee and Dr. Kakodkar point out that “not a single fatality was due to the nuclear reactor.” Most of those who died or injured were victims of the unprecedented tsunami and earthquake. The reactor accident was also caused when the sea wave fell on the backup generating system that was for cooling the reactor. Dr. Kakodkar says that in the Indian system of reactors, the failure of back up systems would not damage the reactor cooling systems. There are three layers of them, and any event—however powerful—would be contained by one of the three. In the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union in 1986, the event was caused by unauthorized employees checking the reactor after switching off its safety systems. Besides the graphite-cooled reactor is now a discarded technology the world over. Even Fukushima was an old system which is no longer used internationally in new reactors.

Despite having experience of over 200 “reactor years” without any major accident, the Indian public is daily exposed to imagined dangers of nuclear power by NGOs and anti-nuclear activists. To meet the post-Fukushima fears, an expert panel went through existing plants and made further recommendations for safety, which are under implementation. Even the tsunami that devastated large coastal regions in East Asia including India did no damage to the coastal nuclear power plant near Chennai. On the issue of nuclear waste also, Dr. Kakodkar contends that the Indian plants first of all generate less waste compared to Western ones because of the re-use of the spent fuel, and the final waste is further processed and then buried beyond all radiation leaks for a thousand years by which time it no longer poses any danger. At a recent energy summit, nuclear scientists provided enormous amounts of data to prove that outside a nuclear reactor, the level of radiation is far less than the natural background radiation that exists in many places. On an aircraft or in an x-ray or CET diagnostics machine, people are exposed to far more intense radiation levels than outside the exclusion zone of a nuclear plant. Apparently all this data is hardly able to penetrate the fear complex in which some are caught due to the anti-nuclear campaigns and unfading TV clips of what happened in Japan.

When asked about the fears of the fishermen in Koodumkulam and Jaitapur that water discharge from the reactors could damage fish population in the sea around, Dr. Banerjee told this journal that research has established that such fears have no basis. The AEC had entrusted eight different universities with checking the sea around the existing coastal plants, but no decrease in fish population or enhanced radioactivity was detected. Dr. Banerjee is frank enough to admit that presenting all these facts about safety has had no effect on the opponents whose minds have already been closed by forces behind them.

This situation of “closed minds” is not only at a village level but is spreading at the political level. Nuclear power is now facing its biggest challenge from a combination of local opposition and political power. In Tamil Nadu, the state government has passed a resolution that asks BRAC to cease preparing the Koodankulam plant for operation even though the state itself is facing a huge power deficit. To overcome religious support for the protests, Prime Minister Dr. Singh himself pleaded with the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, Cardinal Oswald, but the latter asked the Prime Minister first to remove the people’s apprehensions about safety and livelihood loss. In Jaitapur the Maharashtra Chief Minister Chauhan tried to convince the opponents after they refused to listen to a group of experts from the atomic energy establishments, but it was of no avail. Another group of high level experts sent to Koodankulam also drew a similar blank with agitators refusing to listen. Dr. Kalam, despite the high regard with which the country holds him, was turned away in the Tamil Nadu villages where he went to reassure the agitators after visiting the project.

Though the government expects to raise nuclear power generation capacity to 40,000 MW in ten years and accelerate the program further, there has so far been no progress on attracting new capacities with foreign investment or supplies apart from the French offer to set up the over 6,000 MW nuclear power complex at Jaitapur. The Indo-U.S. agreement and subsequent end to India’s nuclear and hi-tech isolation has yet to translate itself into a rush of announcements of nuclear power plants. The big thing the agreement has done is open the import route for uranium, which is in short supply in India. If other policy problems are settled, India can look forward to creating generating capacities through the uranium route beyond the 10,000 MW that is the limit set by the domestic availability of the fuel.

The latest progress in this is legislation to determine the extent of civil nuclear liabilities in case of accidents. There is, however, one provision in this determination that the suppliers are objecting to—namely, the extending of this liability to every single equipment supplier. Foreign suppliers insist that the liability should oly be held by the main contractor and operator. With the parliamentary opposition insisting on almost open ended liability and criminal action, Dr. Singh finds his hands tied on restricting the liability to the contractor and operator only. In response to the repeated pleas from the U.S. Administration on these issues, Dr. Singh informed President Obama at the East Asian Summit in Bali recently that he could go only this far and no further. India has had offers from several French, American, Japanese, Russian, and other companies for technological and financial collaboration in setting up nuclear power plants after the Indo-U.S. agreement was signed, and some MOUs have resulted, but these await operationalization until after the cloud around foreign participation in Indian nuclear power generation is cleared. The government has also freed the nuclear regulator Atomic Energy Regulatory Board from the control of the Department of Atomic Energy, but opponents agitators want it to be totally free from government authority. A nuclear power plant today can be commissioned within five years due to new technological developments, but it is a period of waiting in New Delhi for many industry suitors.

As power generating companies in India are finding that banks have stopped funding them and as distribution companies are bleeding and cannot pay their dues to the generating companies, the hope of raising nuclear power generating capacity to at least 25 percent from the present 3 percent of total required generating capacity by midcentury is held hostage to popular perceptions of an armageddon likely to happen from nuclear reactors. “The key issue is to make people accept nuclear power,” says Prof. R. Rajaraman, emeritus professor of physics at the School of Physical Sciences at the prestigious Jahawaharlal Nehru University. He could not have been more to the point.


2 thoughts on “India’s Struggle for Nuclear Power”

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