Nuclear industry grows, but where are the components?

January 8th, 2010 - 2:15 pm ICT by IANS  

By V. Jagannathan
Chennai, Jan 8 (IANS) The quick growth of the Indian nuclear industry is posing new challenges, especially for the delivery of components for new power plants, says Srikumar Banerjee, the new chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

“The pace of growth itself is challenging. The major challenge is the delivery of components by the industry for the new nuclear power plants. The government has sanctioned building of four more pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR),” Banerjee told IANS in an interview.

Adding to the excitement and challenge is the proposed import of mega reactors from Russia, France and the US and the attendant negotiations.

Expressing satisfaction with the year that went by, Banerjee said: “The major activity that happened last year is the use of imported uranium in the units that are under safeguards and the launch of light water reactor (LWR) for the Arihant nuclear submarine.”

Another milestone in 2009 was the signing of a nuclear cooperation agreement with France.

While the search for new uranium sources within India continued, the good news is that the estimates of reserves in the Tummallapalli mine in Andhra Pradesh has gone up three times. Earlier estimates had put the uranium reserves at 50,000 tonnes.

“We also set up a Nuclear Reprocessing Board with a good amount of independence,” Banerjee said. “Decision on setting up five nuclear parks in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra has been taken,” he said.

“Each one of these parks will house multiple reactors to have around 10,000 MW power generating capacity. The parks will also have facilities like reprocessing units.”

He said the development of metallic fuel to be used in fast reactors in place of oxide fuel is also a big challenge which the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) are working together to overcome.

Apart from the plans to introduce LWRs in a major way, Banerjee said uranium enrichment facilities will be expanded so that the enriched fuel can be used even in PHWRs for better efficiency.

On the funding challenge Banerjee said: “NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd) can set up on its own plants up to 2,000 MW. With partnerships it can meet the funding needs of other projects.”

He said the nuclear establishment will be flush with funds if it starts charging for its irradiation services properly.

“Nearly 90 percent of urad dal is irradiated. Similarly other agricultural produce are also irradiated. The contribution of such agricultural produce to the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) is sizeable. But we do not charge for our services,” Banerjee said.

A talent crunch is expected to hit the Indian nuclear power establishment as the sector is seeing some hyper activity with NPCIL planning joint ventures with several players.

That apart, bright engineers are in favour of higher paying careers in software.

But glamourising nuclear science as a career is not the right way to attract bright talent. It may be counter- productive, feels Banerjee.

“Many people get attracted to science due to fantasy, which is not right. Actually science as a career is hard work. It needs people with patience and perseverance.

“We get the required number of people - around 300 - every year from our training schools while our attrition number is not worrisome.”

Though the majority of people working in various nuclear establishments under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) stay with their employer for a life time, in recent times employees are going in search of greener pastures.

“We do conduct exit interviews to understand why people quit. However people do not tell us the true reasons,” Banerjee said.

“If one needs a good quality of life with a proper work and family life balance then there is nothing to beat our establishments. But if people want money upfront then I don’t have an answer,” he added.

He said DAE research institutions offer opportunity to scientists to put their findings into practice.

Referring to the increasing number of universities starting to offer nuclear engineering courses, Banerjee said there will be no dearth of talent in the coming years for DAE units as well as private players.

Asked about the possibility of setting up small LWRs - like the one developed by the BARC to power a nuclear submarine - in rural areas like diesel gensets, Banerjee said it would not be economical.

On the other hand he sees a good potential for the export of 220 MW PHWR to countries that have good uranium resources.

“Such reactors are suitable in places where grid capacities are not good. In terms of cost even buying multiple units of our 220 MW PHWRs will work out cheaper as against a single unit of high capacity reactor of foreign make,” he remarked.

(V. Jagannathan can be contacted at v.jagannathan@ians.in)

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