August 01, 2011

Small is big

India has a huge potential to export its smaller nuclear reactors, and the world is taking notice of it, writes Ramtanu Maitra.

1 August 2011: Recently, the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) observed that India could soon join a select group of countries such as America, Canada, China, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea that export nuclear reactors.

India is already engaging countries that could be potential buyers of its pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs). With Kazakhstan, India signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for PHWR exports in January last year.

A Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) official told a newspaper that "Kazakhstan would need small-to medium-sized reactors in the range of 220 MW, 540 MW and 700 MW. Kazakhstan would always look at the competitive Asian cost compared to the higher European cost."

NPC has also identified some Asia-Pacific states for selling its mainstay 220 MWe and 540 MWe reactors. "We are having detailed discussions with Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam," NPC chairman S.K.Jain revealed at the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Calcutta last October.

The CRS report focuses on India's significant heavy engineering and manufacturing capabilities built in recent years. The country's nuclear heavy engineering capability has particularly grown.

Larsen and Toubro (L&T) and Russia's Atomstroyexport (ASE) have signed a MoU related to VVER 1000 Russian-designed reactors. L&T and ASE will jointly construct large reactor vessels and components.

India enjoys a clear advantage in the manufacture and export of small reactors. Smaller reactors cost less. The power they generate can be fed into the national grid without causing major disruptions.

Most small countries in Asia and Africa do not have strong national power grids. Feeding a large volume of power into weak grids causes expensive breakdowns.

The reactors that India plans to export are also safer. Being small, radioactive levels are lower. Even in the worst case, radioactive contaminations would not pose a major hazard.

Smaller reactors contain less nuclear fuel. Less fuel (with passive cooling design) slows down the progression of reactor accidents, giving operators more time to take remedial action

Whereas operators in large reactors have only minutes and hours to react to events, those managing small reactors may have hours or even days. This means the chance of a reactor-damaging accident is remote.

Even better, these reactors are small enough never to overheat and melt down. They get cooled by air circulating around the reactor. If small reactors cannot melt down, then they pose no public risk. External emergency actions are virtually eliminated.

Small reactors may be built underground, leaving smaller footprints that are easier to defend. These provide additional benefits of lower construction costs, because they are cheaper than the elaborate security systems in use today.

This in turn means lower operating expenses. It is possible that four or five small reactors put together to equal a large nuclear unit could operate with a smaller staff and reduced costs.

India's PHWRs use natural uranium which means no enrichment. Uranium enrichment is expensive, time-consuming, and could aid in bomb-making, the core of Iran's problem.

India's small reactors are pivotal for developing nations whose agro-industries are impaired by lack of electrical power. These reactors could provide electricity to a number of villages or small towns.

Because the power generated is small, the entire amount could be consumed locally. The grid would not have to be involved at all, even if the country possesses a national grid.

Power generation can be enhanced with the addition of one or more small reactors to a cluster design as in Rajasthan's Rawatbhata, which has six operating units. Two more are planned, but at 700 MW each, they are not small.

Small reactors are useful in coastal areas where their unused heat could desalinate seawater to produce potable water for domestic and commercial consumption. Since heat "waste" is used, desalination costs become immaterial. Bhabha Atomic Research Center and Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research have developed high capabilities in nuclear desalination.

Large reactor makers realize the potential of small units and are developing suitable product lines. India, on the other hand, has tested products and a growing nuclear heavy engineering sector.

L&T, for example, is venturing into international markets to supply heavy engineering components for nuclear reactors. It has agreements with Westinghouse, Atomic Energy of Canada, GE Hitachi and Rolls Royce. L&T in its Rs 20 billion venture with NPC is building a new plant for domestic and export nuclear forgings at Hazira, Surat.

Besides L & T, NPC, Reliance Power and BHEL plan to invest more than US$50 billion in the next five years to expand their manufacturing base in nuclear energy. Areva of France and Bharat Forge have a joint venture for casting and forging nuclear components for export and domestic consumption.

In sum, India is well-poised to export small reactors backed with powerful nuclear heavy engineering skills. Reactor exports bring politico-military leverages which should assist in India's emerging major power status.

Ramtanu Maitra is South Asia analyst for Executive Intelligence Review in Washington DC.

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