India’s nuclear-reactor imports a giant scandal in the making

The spectre of India’s Fukushimas

The creeping rot in the country’s nuclear power projects could see Japan’s troubles re-enacted on India’s shores
Brahma Chellaney
Mint, March 17, 2011

The controversial Indo-US nuclear deal was pushed through without building “the broadest possible national consensus” that the prime minister had promised. Now, the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan is helping to turn the spotlight on India’s nuclear safety and its moves to push through major reactor imports without a competitive bidding process.

These multibillion-dollar imports constitute a giant scandal in the making, with long-term safety implications. Take the plan to install 9,900 MW of nuclear-generated capacity at Jaitapur: Not only was the environmental impact assessment hurriedly approved, coercive efforts are also being made to acquire land to allow France’s Areva to build six reactors—none of these of a type operational anywhere. It is only after the serial incidents at Japan’s six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi plant that India’s nuclear chief has acknowledged the need for an earthquake- and tsunami-related safety evaluation of Areva’s reactor model. Why wasn’t this done before reserving Jaitapur for Areva?

To be sure, India must ramp up its electricity production from all energy sources. This does not preclude the need for safe and cost-competitive nuclear power. Yet the government is acquiring land, without any competitive bidding, on behalf of four chosen foreign vendors. A nuclear park has first been earmarked for each foreign firm and only then, once leverage has been undercut, have prices sought to be negotiated. The import contracts, while making France, Russia and the US major commercial beneficiaries, herald a monsoon of potential kickbacks for corrupt politicians. Such an unabashedly rigged process beats even the 2G telecom scandal.

Given this perversity, is it surprising that the costs of imported generating capacity will be almost double the $1.77 million per installed MW of new indigenous capacity? Worse still, the foreign vendors—in addition to their accident liability having been capped by special legislation—are being freed from the task of producing electricity at marketable rates. The reactors will be owned and operated by the state, with the Indian taxpayer bigheartedly subsidizing the high-priced electricity generated. For the foreign vendors, there is no downside risk—only profits to reap.

Yet for India, there is a clear risk that the nuclear deal, with $150 billion worth of total potential import contracts, could end up as the single largest money-making scheme ever unveiled. After all, contract-making, along with policy changes, serves as the main engine of big-bucks corruption—a situation that has fostered high import dependency and made India the only major exception in Asia to the continent’s model of export-driven economic growth.

India’s imported plants—the US-built Tarapur and the much-delayed, Russian-supplied Kundankulam—are located by the ocean, as are all the new nuclear parks. All the foreign-origin plants, including the planned imports, are light water reactors (LWRs). These, with their once-through cooling process, are the greatest water guzzlers in the world. Building LWRs inland in water-stressed India is thus not a viable option. But despite a large coastline, India has no suitable vacant seaside sites for LWRs. Building nuclear plants by the seashore thus means displacing residents and running into grassroots opposition, as symbolized by Jaitapur, Haripur and Mithi Virdi. And as the late-2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed by inundating and shutting down the Madras Atomic Power Station, seaside reactors are vulnerable to natural disasters. This could be a serious concern going forward: A climate change-driven paradigm will not only make storms, hurricanes and tsunamis more frequent, but also lead to a rise in ocean levels, making seaside reactors even more vulnerable.

India’s transition from a largely indigenous capacity to a heavily import-based programme will mean dependence on foreign vendors even for critical safety-related replacement parts. India today boasts the world’s oldest operating Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) at Tarapur. General Electric, which built the Tarapur plant, also supplied the BWRs at the heart of the Fukushima crisis. With Germany now deciding to shut down all seven of its pre-1980 nuclear plants at least till June, India can expect to come under pressure for still operating the 1969-vintage Tarapur.

Yet such are nuclear power’s inherent risks that the Fukushima disaster centres on reactors that were shut down. The explosions in reactor buildings and fires at spent-fuel ponds there highlight two other dangers in India: The decision to build six or more reactors in close proximity at each park, and the discharged fuel accumulating at Tarapur for four decades because the US refuses to take it back or allow India to reprocess it.

The spectre of India’s own Fukushimas is also being raised by the planned import of four different types of LWR technology, which will make the country’s nuclear power programme the most diverse in the world. This diversity may obviate reliance on one supplier, but it will also make India’s safety responsibilities extremely complex and onerous, given the multiplicity of reactor designs already in place. After all, it takes a long time to create teams of experienced safety engineers for any reactor model.

Fukushima is a warning that India must not compromise on long-term nuclear safety. The country deserves transparency and open debate—an imperative underlined by the pervasive corruption, the creeping politicization of top nuclear officials, and the rise of the corporate nuclear lobby.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.