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The year 2016 closes without India having gained entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The expectations for this had reached a crescendo around the middle of the year when the Indian application was taken up at the plenary meeting in June in South Korea. However, China did not allow this to happen, burdening the Indian case for membership with several technical, procedural and political issues. Some other nations had a few issues too. A special envoy of the NSG was appointed to engage with these countries and address their concerns in the hope of scheduling a special meeting later in the year. However, as it stands, India could not make it into the NSG in 2016.


This, however, has had little bearing on the strides that India’s nuclear power programme and its growing engagement with several other nuclear supplier nations has made in the last 12 months. Several new achievements dotted the year and they augur well for the coming months.  


The first major development of 2016, in fact, took place just at the turn of the year. Keen to address the concerns that had been voiced over the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act (CLNDA) that had been enacted in 2010 but which had dampened the mood of domestic and international nuclear industry, the government notified the creation of a Nuclear Liability Fund with a corpus of Rs 2,000 crores in Jan 2016. This fund is meant to provide money in case damages resulting from a nuclear accident were to exceed the limit specified for nuclear power operators under the CLNDA, which is Rs 1,500 cr. In order to build the Liability Fund, the operators would pay a levy of 5-10 paise per unit of electricity sold and their payments into the Fund would continue till the accumulated amount touches Rs 2,000 cr. Thereafter, the payments would stop, only to recommence if any withdrawals are made from the Fund so that the balance stays at Rs 2,000 cr at any given point of time.


Moving further in this direction, India also ratified the IAEA Convention on Supplementary Compensation in February 2016. This would enable the availability of additional funds from an international pool in the unfortunate case of an accident. More aspects of the liability issue within the country were further addressed in August with the introduction of an Operators and Suppliers Policy through the India Nuclear Insurance Pool launched by General Insurance Corporation of India (GIC Re). With these tranche of measures, the concerns of the nuclear industry have pretty much been satisfied and the stage is set for their participation in the Indian nuclear power programme.


India’s nuclear power programme, meanwhile, today boasts of 22 reactors contributing a little less than 6000 MW to the country’s total electricity production. In Feb 2016, Koodankulam 1 (KK-1) achieved full power and the second unit was also synchronised in June this year, but it is yet to start commercial production of electricity. Construction work on units 3 and 4 has already started and eight more are planned at the same site through Russian collaboration – concluded in November 2016 when President Putin visited India. In anticipation of the booming business, Rosatom has set up office in Mumbai to facilitate greater participation of the local industry in future reactors. A higher local content would not only generate employment within the country but also reduce the cost of the reactors. Therefore, Indian nuclear cooperation with Russia is currently the most advanced and promising for the future.


Meanwhile, price negotiations for the French EPR nuclear plants to be built at Jaitapur, which had been ongoing through early 2016, hit a bump with the takeover of AREVA by Electricite de France (EDF) announced in June 2016. This has led to a turbulent phase within the French nuclear industry, in turn slowing down the cooperation with India too.


A third major development in international civilian nuclear cooperation came about with the conclusion of the bilateral agreement with Japan in Nov 2016. The agreement enables India to import nuclear material, technologies and reactors from Japan, a nation with advanced nuclear technology and which is a major player in the global nuclear supply chain. In fact, Japan Steel Works is amongst the only five companies worldwide that has the capacity to manufacture large-sized single-piece pressure vessels used in large capacity nuclear reactors, the kind that India plans to import. American Westinghouse Electric, which is now owned by Toshiba uses components from JSW. In the absence of an Indo-Japan agreement, US nuclear industry with Japanese investment would have found it difficult to authorise transfers to India. 


2016 also marked a record with regard to the import of uranium into the country. 3000 metric tonnes was imported from Russia, Canada and Kazakhstan. The availability of imported uranium for the safeguarded reactors has enabled a jump in their capacity factors. While the Department of Atomic Energy too, through its Uranium Corporation of India Ltd, has now seriously restarted uranium prospecting and exploitation within the country, the availability of uranium from outside will be a big help as the new indigenous nuclear reactors, seven of which are currently under construction, come on line from 2017 onwards. Building a strategic reserve of uranium would stand India in good stead.


In the meantime, 2017 brings hope of fresh and significant developments. The first of these would be a straight jump of 1000 MW when KK- 2 begins commercial electricity production early in 2017.  This would raise the nuclear component of the Indian electricity basket to about 3 per cent. In terms of numbers this does not seem to mean much. But the government remains hopeful that with the under-construction and proposed plants, it would be able to rapidly augment that number. Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), has asserted that India has the ability to add capacity of nearly 2500-3000 MW annually “on a continual basis”  in the coming years.


The second event to look out for in the New Year would be the start of operation of the first of the new line of 700 MW reactors. After the 540 MW reactors at Tarapur, these would be the biggest capacity reactors indigenously built in India. It would signify the maturation of its Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) technology and these reactors are expected to become the standard reactors in the future.


A third much awaited development would be the attainment of criticality by the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam. This date has been pushed back for many years now and it is hoped that 2017 would be the lucky year when India begins to get a step closer to the second stage of its nuclear power programme. Given that nearly all countries that embarked on fast reactor technology have given it up (Japan being the latest to put its Monju reactor to rest in December this year), the eyes of the world would be on India to gauge the success of its PFBR. It is important that the country progresses steadily on this and takes care of all safety and regulatory issues before taking the final steps towards its criticality.


Apparently then, there is plenty on the anvil for the Indian nuclear power programme in the coming year. Meanwhile, in case the Indian nuclear diplomacy can also swing the NSG membership in 2017, it would be an additional reason to rejoice. But even if it does not, India’s nuclear programme has plenty to keep it busy in 2017 and beyond.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.