Last month, it was reported that the Indian government plans to cut nuclear capacity additions by two-thirds.1 These reports quoted a statement by Jitendra Singh, the State Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, which directly presides over the country's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Most journalists and analysts highlighted a scaling down from the previous projection of India achieving nuclear capacity of 63,000 MW by the year 2030 to 22,480MW in the same period, or roughly two-thirds.2
A closer look at the Minister Jitendra Singh's statement, however, reveals a totally different story.3
The government's announcement actually does not talk about cutting back nuclear power or cancelling any projects that have been discussed. In fact, two projects that have essentially been rejected figure in the list provided by the minister to the Indian parliament, under the category 'Green field sites, accorded 'In-Principle' approval'.3 One is at Mithivirdi in Gujarat's Bhavnagar district where US corporation Westinghouse was allotted a project for six nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) abandoned it last year after the project failed to acquire environmental clearance.4 Similarly, the Haripur Nuclear Power Project proposed in Bengal, for which the state government under Mamata Bannerjee has denied land ever since it came to power and continues to rule out the project5, is present in Jitendra Singh's list under 'Green field sites, accorded 'In-Principle' approval'.
The reality is the nuclear program has been delayed, not slashed as assumed. Such huge delays and under-performance have been the hallmark of India's Department of Atomic Energy. In the early 1950s, the DAE estimated that it would achieve nuclear capacity of 20,000 MW by the year 1980, whereas capacity was merely 540 MW when that year arrived. Again, DAE hoped that by 2000 it would have installed capacity of 10,000 MW, but it achieved only 2,720 MW.
After 2000, the DAE's capacity addition increased slightly, but again immensely exaggerated future projections were made. In 2007, the DAE thought capacity of 20,000 MW by the year 20206 was achievable and 30,000 MW by 20307 was an achievable target. These ambitions took a massive jump in 2008 after the culmination of the Indo-US deal under which India got an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) and re-entered global nuclear commerce. In 2008, projections were made for achieving 63,000MW by 20308 and a whopping 275,300 Gigawatts by 2052.9
However, despite the NSG exemption in 2008 and subsequent agreements with the US, France and other countries for the supply of nuclear reactors, not a single imported nuclear project has taken off. Construction is yet to begin in places like Jaitapur and Kovvada, despite the Indian government's rush to violently force local communities to give away their land and provide consent for environmental clearance. This has to do on the one hand with the terminal crisis of the global nuclear industry after Fukushima, leading to financial meltdowns and bankruptcies; as well as the reluctance of nuclear suppliers to accept India's nuclear liability law.10 The latter reveals much about the nature of multinational nuclear companies: the law caps the total liability in the case of a potential nuclear accident to an amount that is much less than the potential cost of an accident or the price tag of a nuclear power plant. The Modi government has tried every trick in the book to dilute even that.11
The Indian minister's statement should be viewed in this context. Since imported rectors have not progressed at the pace that the country's nuclear establishment hoped for, it is now focusing on expanding the fleet of "indigenously-designed" reactors to several existing and new nuclear power plant sites. These 700 MW Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) are in essence scaled-up models of a reactor design called the CANDU imported from Canada.
The recent statement, in fact, envisages a 'realistic' and determined shift in the strategy to expand nuclear power in India, although at a slower pace than advertised before. The Minister's announcement includes setting up ten 10 'greenfield' PHWR/CANDUs of 700 MW each by 2024 (four each in Gorakhpur and Mahi-Banswara and two in Chutka) for which administrative approval and financial sanction have been granted already. These constructions will result in an additional electricity generation capacity of 13,460 MW (PHWRs plus Russian VVERs), besides the 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), which the DAE has been claiming to commission 'this year' for the past several years.
The statement also lists another category of new projects – greenfield sites for whom 'in-principle' approval has been obtained and the DAE doesn't see any external obstacle. By 2031, this category of planned projects would bring 22,480 MW of additional capacity online. These include – Jaitapur (6 x 1650 = 9,900 MW), Kovvada (6 x 1208 = 7,248 MW), Mithi Virdi (6 x 1,000 MW = 6,000 MW) and Haripur (6 x 1,000 = 6,000 MW), besides a newly included project at Bhimpur in Madhya Pradesh (4 x 700 = 2,800 MW). The Minister's statement also mentions that pre-project activities are underway at these sites.
This new focus on PHWRs has severe consequences for communities at sites that have so far not been directly subject to nuclear risks. This includes Gorakhpur in Haryana, Mahi-Banswara in Rajasthan, and Chutka in Madhya Pradesh. In Chutka, the local communities have waged an intense agitation against their second displacement.12 They were first displaced for the Bargi dam on Narmada river in 1990, and now they have been served eviction notices. The government agencies have again approached them with the same promises – jobs, electricity, development, rehabilitation and welfare measures, but they know the reality. In Gorakhpur, the NPCIL is constructing a 2,800 MW plant merely 150 km from the national capital New Delhi with a population of 24 million –the plant depends on a small canal for the supply of water for cooling the reactors in normal operation and even during potential accidents.13
Therefore, the much-touted 'cut-back' is far being a reflection of any rethink in the Indian nuclear establishment. Moreover, the zeal to trample all safety, environmental and democratic norms continues unabated as reflected in the recent police atrocities against peaceful anti-nuclear protests in Chutka14 and Jaitapur15. It will be ironic for the villagers who continue to face fabricated sedition charges for their peaceful protest to find their government winning praise internationally for the sanity of an illusory nuclear cut-back.
The author is thankful to Dr. M.V. Ramana and Peter M. for their insights.