Is India’s Quest For Foreign Nuclear Reactors In Its Best Interest? | Aditya Kashyap

Aditya Kashyap

Ever since the declaration of Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005, numerous problems have cropped up leading to delays in its implementation. A major setback happened recently when Toshiba backed Westinghouse, which under the Indo-US nuclear deal, has plans to build six nuclear plants in Kovvada using Ap1000 reactors, filed for bankruptcy. Such instances have off late become quite prevalent in the nuclear industry as seen in the case of French nuclear reactor manufacturer Areva, which works in close collaboration with Mitsubishi, is heavily under debt and is hoping for a bailout from the French government in order for it to continue its day to day operations. The recent bankruptcies is nothing short of the industry’s death rattle and the final chapter in the 20th century’s deluded affair with nuclear power. In 2006, when Toshiba bought Westinghouse for $5.4 billion, the seller projected that by 2020 the global market for nuclear power generation was expected to have grown by 50 percent. Westinghouse was set to be the king of what Toshiba thought would be the golden age of nuclear power. Toshiba’s president and CEO envisioned a market where 10 large nuclear reactors would be built each year until 2020, amounting to 130 gigawatts of new reactor capacity. Just 10 years after forecasting billions in profit, Westinghouse’s bankruptcy filing cited as much as $10 billion in debt.

As of now the only reactor functioning in India of foreign origin is Russian belonging to a Russian firm named Rosatom. Rosatom has been supplying reactors to the Kudankulam nuclear plant and its performance hasn’t been very satisfactory. It took double the time, budgeted cost of the imported reactor over an indigenously designed one adds to the concerns along with the resistance faced from the local population, land acquisition hurdles remain as ever, and finally the ever-present natural disaster scare which has become a very serious concern post the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. After the Fukushima disaster, Switzerland and Spain banned the construction of new reactors and Germany went even a step further while shutting down 8 of its 17 reactors and promising to shutter the rest by the end of 2022. Nuclear power relies on fission of the uranium-235 nuclei that perpetuates the initial split in other nuclei in an environment moderated by control rods. The power garnered from this process is used to heat water, which in turn powers an electric turbine generator. If the flow of water being heated stops, it can result in a meltdown where the uranium particles melt, releasing radioactive vapours which can escape into the air if security protocol fails.

Every couple of years, a portion of the spent fuel — composed of uranium that failed to fission, the products of fission, and plutonium — is removed from the reactor to be stored in water which both cools it and blocks its radiation. This decay can take up to hundreds of thousands of years. In addition to this, plutonium can be siphoned off to make bombs, posing a security risk not only from accidental discovery but also from deliberate weaponization that could result in devastating effects.

Instead of just concentrating on nuclear energy, which no doubt is a clean of energy, we should be aware of the overall ramification of going forward with the construction of nuclear reactors by Westinghouse in India. With the filing of the bankruptcy, no creditor would consider it viable to come forward to lend $7 billion in order to fund India’s project in the first phase. Presently, Westinghouse is engaged in construction of AP1000 reactors in the United States of America (“US”) and China. The Company touts the reactor as “the safest and most economical nuclear power plant available in the worldwide commercial marketplace.”Westinghouse has the contractual responsibility of two projects to build four AP1000 nuclear reactors in the U.S. Both these projects have been delayed by three years or more and the costs have escalated by 40-50%. It has also been engaged in construction of two Chinese nuclear reactor projects for the construction of four similar AP1000 reactors at two sites, and these too are running behind schedule, and have faced cost overrun. In China, the first of these reactors was to have been set up in 2013. As of 2017, none of these reactors is near completion, and it may take another two years to finish all four. Financially speaking, each 1000MW Westinghouse reactor costs thrice of what an indigenously designed heavy water reactor costs; on top of that not even a single AP1000 reactor has gone critical. In the meanwhile, Areva has struggled to complete two identical EPR reactors, one at Olkiluoto in Finland, which is still not operational despite over a decade-long delay and a trebling of costs, and the other in Flamanville, France, plagued by serious construction and security issues, delays and massive cost over-runs.

Despite its various positive attributes we should also look forward to incorporating other forms of energy, like wind and solar, whose costs have been falling dramatically; courtesy rapid advancement of research and innovation in the field. The sharp fall in oil prices and the expansion in gas projects as a viable and clean alternative are compelling factors to support a shift to other alternative forms of energy., thus making it an economically prudent prospective. As cheap electricity can be supplied in small batches and gradually increased as demand ramps up. In case of nuclear energy, electricity can be supplied only when the reactor reaches critical phase and it has to supply all the capacity at once which often leads to excess electricity, due to subdued demand, causing waste of precious resource. Simply put, nuclear power balance-sheet makes no sense today in the changing circumstances. The geopolitics of nuclear commerce is phenomenally transforming. With falling prices of wind and solar energy, it will be more prudent for the government to exploit alternative, clean, safe, and sustainable sources of energy than remaining aimlessly fixated to pursue nuclear energy.

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