Interview with K.N. Vyas

“Enabling steps to increase nuclear capacity”

From an installed nuclear base of less than 7 GW, the government is looking to expand the installed capacity to over 22 GW by 2031. It has, in the recent past, undertaken a series of progressive measures, including the financial sanction of 12 new reactors. In a recent interview with Power Line, K.N. Vyas, secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), spoke about the status of the country’s nuclear power projects, the project pipeline, the role of nuclear in the energy mix and the outlook for the segment. Excerpts…

India is targeting 63 GW of nuclear power capacity by 2032. How is the country progressing in meeting this target?

At present, there are 22 nuclear reactors with an installed capacity of 6,780 MW. The government has taken several enabling steps to increase the nuclear power capacity. In-principle approval has been accorded to sites for locating future reactors based on both indigenous technologies and those with foreign technical cooperation. The government has also entered into enabling agreements with other countries for nuclear cooperation, including for fuel supply. The Atomic Energy Act has been amended recently to enable joint ventures (JVs) of public sector companies to set up nuclear power projects.

The government has accorded administrative approval and financial sanction for setting up 12 more reactors, with a capacity of 9,000 MW. These include Chutka (2×700 MW) in Madhya Pradesh, Kaiga 5 and 6 (2×700 MW) in Karnataka, Mahi Banswara 1 and 2 (2×700 MW) in Rajasthan, Mahi Banswara 3 and 4 (2×700 MW), Gorakhpur 3 and 4 (2×700 MW) in Haryana, and Kudankulam 5 and 6 (2×1,000 MW) in Tamil Nadu. On progressive completion of the projects that are under construction or have been accorded sanction, the installed nuclear power capacity will reach 22,480 MW by 2031.

The government has also accorded in-principle approval to sites for setting up nuclear power plants in the future. These include Jaitapur Units 1-6 (6×1,650 MW) in Maharashtra, Kovvada Units 1-6 (6×1,208 MW) in Andhra Pradesh, Chhaya Mithi Virdi (6×1,594 MW, nominal capacity) in Gujarat, Haripur Units 1-6 (6×1,200 MW, nominal capacity) in West Bengal, and Bhimpur Units 1-4 (4×700 MW) in Madhya Pradesh. Further, the DAE is planning to take up design and construction of six fast breeder reactors with a capacity of 600 MWe each, providing an additional power generation capacity of 3,600 MWe. The above-mentioned capacity will, on realisation, meet the target of 63 GW.

What are the steps needed to accelerate India’s nuclear power programme?

The government has taken several steps to accelerate the nuclear power programme. These include augmenting the nuclear power capacity through measures such as the resolution of issues related to the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, and the creation of the Indian Nuclear Insurance Pool; according administrative approval and financial sanction to 10 indigenous 700 MW pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) to be set up in fleet mode, and two units of light water reactors (LWRs) to be set up in cooperation with the Russian Federation; amending the Atomic Energy Act to enable JVs of public sector companies to set up nuclear power projects; and enhancing project monitoring to identify and address the issues affecting project progress at multiple levels, coupled with close monitoring through the PRAGATl (Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation) platform. Fuel supply has been secured through the conclusion of fuel supply contracts with several countries and the augmentation of fuel supply from domestic sources.

Which are some of the key deals signed with other countries in the past one year? How are they progressing?

India has entered into agreements for setting up nuclear reactors in technical cooperation with the Russian Federation, the US and France. At present, discussions are in progress to arrive at project proposals for setting up large-size LWRs in cooperation with France at Jaitapur,  and in cooperation with the US at Kovvada.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) has signed several agreements with foreign companies in the past one year, including the Industrial Way Forward Agreement (IWFA) with Electricite de France (EDF) for setting up six LWRs (6×1,650 MW) at Jaitapur in March 2018. In respect of Jaitapur, in line with the IWFA, EDF has submitted a techno-commercial proposal. Discussions are currently in progress to arrive at a viable project proposal.

In addition, negotiations have been held for the supply of fuel for atomic power plants with countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Uzbekistan, France and Australia.

What has been the trend in capital costs and tariffs for power produced from new nuclear power plants? Is nuclear power still competitive with thermal and renewables?

The capital cost (completion cost including escalation and interest during construction) of recently sanctioned indigenous 700 MW PHWRs is about Rs 150 million per MW. In respect of LWRs set up with international cooperation in the country, the capital costs have been project specific, depending on the timeline of implementation and the business models.

Unlike thermal (coal and gas) technologies, nuclear power plants have a high capacity charge and a low energy (fuel) cost component. Therefore, the tariffs of nuclear power are not very sensitive to fuel price increases. Nuclear power tariffs, which currently range from about Rs 2.06 to Rs 4.10 per unit, are competitive with those of contemporary thermal power plants in the vicinity. The average tariff of nuclear power in 2017-18 was Rs 3.55 per unit. In comparison, the tariffs of thermal power stations commissioned in 2017-18 were in the range of Rs 5.20-Rs 5.70 per unit. The expected tariffs of nuclear power projects currently under construction will be competitive with those of contemporary thermal power stations.

Further, the current thermal tariffs do not account for the externality costs arising from emissions (apart from the coal cess on fuel). Renewables, especially solar and wind, are intermittent sources of power, while nuclear power is a baseload source that is available 24×7. Thus, renewables cannot cater to the baseload demand unless backed up by alternative generation or storage systems. The capacity utilisation of solar and wind is about a fifth that of nuclear power. Thus, to generate 1 MW of power, 5 MW of solar or wind capacity has to be installed, as against 1 MW of nuclear capacity.

The current tariffs of renewables, particularly solar, have exhibited a falling trend. However, these tariffs do not account for costs of storage, investments required in transmission and grid management, and waste management (of the large number of solar panels that will have to be replaced after their short lifespan). In comparison, nuclear power is available 24×7 and its tariffs internalise waste management costs. Thus, if the tariffs of nuclear and renewable energy are to be compared, all these factors would need to be factored in.

However, ensuring competitive tariffs for nuclear power remains a challenge, and efforts are ongoing to reduce tariffs by improving designs and efficiency, adopting appropriate financing and business models, and operating efficiently.

What are the steps being taken to improve domestic fuel security? What are the current and estimated fuel requirements over the next few years?

The government has taken measures to augment domestic uranium supply through state-of-the-art integrated, multi-disciplinary exploration in several prospective and potential geological domains in various parts of the country, and the opening of new mines and processing facilities.

Uranium Corporation of India Limited, a public sector undertaking under the DAE, has drawn up a detailed plan in line with the DAE’s vision to achieve self-sufficiency in uranium production over the next 15 years. The approximate requirement of uranium for PHWRs per year is 45 tonnes for a unit capacity of 220 MW (at 85 per cent capacity factor), 100 tonnes for a unit capacity of 540 MW and 125 tonnes for a unit capacity of 700 MW. The approximate requirement of uranium for LWRs per year is 6 tonnes for a unit capacity of 160 MW (at 85 per cent capacity factor) and 25 tonnes for a unit capacity of 1,000 MW (at 90 per cent capacity factor).

What role can nuclear power play in India’s future energy mix and climate change goals?

Nuclear power is a baseload source that is available 24×7, and is safe and reliable. It is clean and its lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are comparable to those of renewables like hydropower and wind. Nuclear power also has huge potential. India’s large thorium reserves can provide the country electricity for centuries through the pursuit of its three-stage nuclear power programme. Nuclear power is thus a potent solution for ensuring the country’s energy security in a sustainable manner, in the long term. It has a vital role to play in India’s future energy mix, both in terms of ensuring long-term energy security and addressing climate change.

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