India is the world’s largest democracy. It is a country that has been growing and developing its economy at an impressive rate. As a former British colony that worked hard to get rid of its colonizers, it is also endowed with fierce pride and an independent streak. I like that in a country – I live in one with similar characteristics.
However, the powers-that-be do not always like independent thinkers and people that do not want to be subservient members of the “international community” that is dominated by countries like my own. Ever since India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 and detonated a domestically produced nuclear explosive – nicknamed Smiling Budda – on May 18, 1974, it has been subjected to a number of sanctions and restrictions on its nuclear electricity development program. Essentially, the Nuclear Suppliers Group has attempted to pressure India into compliance with the NPT.
For India’s part, it has consistently claimed that the NPT is a discriminatory treaty because it allows five nations – all of which happen to be the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – to own and retain nuclear weapons while restricting their ownership from any other nation. China and France both had the same opinion of the NPT – until they were allowed to join as nuclear weapons states in the early 1990s. In 1998, after a series of tests for devices that could actually be called weapons – unlike Smiling Budda – India formally declared itself to be a nuclear weapons state.
It is very common to find articles and commentary that downplays and criticizes India’s domestic nuclear power program as a waste of money, as ineffective because of the low overall production, and as a system that is doomed to continuing failure because of a lack of indigenous uranium. My opinion, from a distance and without any detailed internal knowledge, is that India is getting close to being able to surprise the world with its ability to produce power from fission.
My friends who are US Marines have a saying – “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” That saying applies to the Indian nuclear power program. India has taken a challenging path by insisting on controlling its own destiny, but figuring out how make progress has provided it with a full range of technical expertise and manufacturing infrastructure required to build capable plants in a short period of time. Its indigenously produced Tarapur 3 & 4 reactors, both 490 MWe (net) Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors, took less than 5 years from first concrete pour to commercial operation. When they first started up, they were operated at full capacity for an extended period of time to show that they could achieve high capacity factors. (See – World Nuclear Association: Nuclear Power in India)
The big challenge that India has faced for a number of years has been matching its uranium supply to its power plant development. Its reactors often must limit operations because of a lack of fuel. Though other nations occasionally have issues arranging fuel deliveries, nations that operate typical light water reactors at least have some planning and lead time between fuel loading cycles. However, the PHWR designs that represent most of India’s capacity have the advantage of being able to be refueled on line with natural uranium and the disadvantage of relatively low burn-up capability and a need for a continued supply of new fuel.
It is common wisdom within the nuclear world that India is lacking in domestic uranium, but that assertion has never really made sense to me. India is a very large land mass and uranium is pretty widely spread around the world. The reality is that India did not have early discoveries of readily accessible uranium deposits and has had to invest some time, money and talent to find and develop sources within its borders. Apparently, it has succeeded in its discovery efforts and is now working on the development required to produce, mill and refine the uranium it needs for its plants. That process has not been as rapid as many Indian observers would like, in fact, it has been frustratingly slow as described by the Hindustan Times article dated June 7, 2008 titled India’s forgotten N-gold. Most Indian reactors can use natural uranium fuel, so it does not need too much enrichment capacity.
Along with finding enough domestic uranium to operate its current and planned PHWRs, India is also building a fast breeder reactor and developing the infrastructure, raw materials and technical knowledge that it will need to take advantage of its world leading thorium deposits. Since thorium is not fissile itself, it cannot be the first fuel cycle development. It must be turned into fissile material by exposure to neutrons from reactors based on either U-235 from enrichment plants or Pu-239 from recycling facilities.
There has been a lot of publicity about the deal that President Bush signed with India, but the progress in reaching a final deal has not be very rapid. Some people in India’s nuclear establishment have often claimed that it would be better to “buy before make” and to take advantage of imported supplies that could be purchased cheaper than developing its own industry, but others have continued to press for the independent path.
As a submariner, I always like having back up plans, redundancy and fall back positions. My view is that India is now well positioned to build its own plants in an expeditious manner, it has sufficient investment strength to develop its uranium production capability, it has a growing need for power, and its power customers have an increasing ability to pay their bills.
(Aside: One thing that has always challenged Indian electrical power planners is the fact that the country has some of the highest “line losses” in the world. I will translate that into retail sales lingo – they have always had a lot of “shrinkage”. One more translation – many people along the transmission and distribution lines have figured out ways to tap the line to steal the power. That problem has always made it a bit of a challenge for the power plant owners; it is never good to lose 30-40% of your output to thieves. See, for example DHBVN method: No payment, no development . End Aside)
It would not surprise me at all for India to determine that working with the US and perhaps even the rest of the Nuclear Suppliers Group is simply not worth the effort required. It may decide just to keep on with its own development.