Indian nuclear accord to unlock $60bn

India plans to have 24 reactors on its east and west coasts between now and 2025, say its leaders.

Manmohan Singh, the Indian leader, says "India will be liberated from the constraints of technology denial of 34 years."
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MUMBAI // When American politicians voted through an Indian nuclear co-operation deal on Wednesday, it ended a defining political battle which threatened to topple the government of Manmohan Singh, the prime minister. But for the scientists and engineers in Mumbai's Department of Atomic Energy and state nuclear firm Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), this week is when the work really starts.

Over the next 18 months, NPCIL hopes to strike deals worth up to US$60 billion (Dh220.8bn) with Russia's Rosatom, France's Areva and American-based Westinghouse and GE. "The first company will be Rosatom," said Sudhinder Thakur, the director of corporate planning at NPCIL. "We already have a model and we have already done some working with them, so it will be faster. Then it will be Areva, and after that Westinghouse and GE."

Under the NPCIL plan, each company will be awarded a site where they will build two reactors initially, starting construction within the next five years. This will be followed by another two reactors on each site, built with a gap of about three years. NPCIL aims to build 24 reactors on its east and west coasts between now and 2025. Unlike the UAE, which has decided to choose a single reactor design for its entire programme, India is looking for deals with four reactor designers. Dr Pradeep Kumar, a senior fellow at Teri, an Indian energy think tank, argues that India needs to generate 70 gigawatts (GW) of new nuclear capacity by 2030, up from just 4.6 GW today.

If this is achieved, it will still leave nuclear power generating less than 10 per cent of the 800 GW of total electricity demand, according to Teri projections. "The resource requirements to implement this are huge, not just in terms of money, but in terms of other requirements." Dr Kumar said. "So I think the private sector has a big role to play in this. It can't be done by the public sector."

The International Energy Agency projects that India needs to invest $1,250bn in its energy infrastructure between now and 2030, of which about 76 per cent would be spent on power. At present, private companies are not permitted to develop nuclear power plants, so the international companies will work as design contractors for NPCIL, licensing their technologies and working with Indian engineering firms such as Larsen and Toubro and Bharat Heavy Electricals (BHEL) to build the plants.

Russia and India will begin talks this month on a deal to supply between two and four of its 1000 megawatt (MW) plants using the Russian VVER design at the Kudankulum site, where it is already working on two plants to be commissioned next year. Mr Thakur said a deal could be signed with the Russians early next year. The nuclear deal India signed with France on Tuesday could be followed by a reactor supply deal with Areva within 12 to 18 months, he predicted. France is hoping to strike an initial deal to build two of its European Pressure Reactors (EPR), each of which could generate 1,600 MW, with a further set of plants possible later on. Areva has already informally been allotted a site at Jaitapur, on India's west coast south of Mumbai.

"That is the site for the French reactors," said Mr Thakur. "It's decided, but not declared." He said NPCIL had already begun work on the site, sending staff there to begin acquiring the land. "Jaitapur is quite an advanced site," he said. "Some preparatory work on land acquisition is going on, some notification to say that a nuclear power plant will come up. It's no more greenfield." Mr Thakur said it would take longer to agree deals with Westinghouse and GE, as tight controls on the transfer of sensitive US technology to other countries meant that no technologies could be discussed which were not already in the public domain. It was only now that the Senate had passed the bill that genuine talks could begin.

Westinghouse is aiming to initially supply India with two AP1000 reactors and GE aims to supply its Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) design. The passing of the bill ends the ban on Indian involvement in international nuclear trade that began when it tested a nuclear bomb in 1974, making India the first country accepted into the global nuclear trade without signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

When the US Congress approved the deal on Saturday, Mr Singh said: "India will be liberated from the constraints of technology denial of 34 years. The civilian nuclear co-operation is in the interest of India, in the interest of the US and in the interest of the world at large." Mr Singh signed the original deal with George W Bush, the US president, back in 2005, with a detailed agreement completed in July last year. But fierce opposition from India's Communist Party, who were then allies of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, left the deal frozen for more than a year and threatened at one stage to bring down the government. But since Mr Singh wrong-footed the Communists in July with a sudden new alliance with the populist Samajwadi party, the pace has been fast.

He won a crucial confidence vote in the Indian parliament on July 2, struck a deal with the International Atomic Energy Authority on Aug 1, which promotes the peaceful use of nuclear power, and won a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, the group of nuclear trading nations set up after India's 1974 test on Sept 6. The most rapid benefit India will see from the bill will be an end to the shortage of supplies of uranium fuel which have kept NPCIL's reactors operating at just 40 per cent of their full capacity.

Officials from Canada's Department for Foreign Affairs and International Trade are planning to send a delegation to India, where they will discuss fuel supplies. Canada is the world's largest exporter of uranium, but India will need to agree to a new bilateral deal and see it passed through the Canadian parliament before it can receive supplies. India is also considering supplies from Kazakhstan, Mongolia, US, South Africa, Central Africa and Niger. India's existing nuclear programme is based on Canada's Candu reactors, which Canadian nuclear power company AECL supplied before the 1974 ban. Including the two Russian plants, NPCIL has five nuclear power plants under construction. It bought one new reactor into production last May, expects to bring two more on line next month and in December, and another in March next year.

By 2012, it plans to build a further eight 700-MW reactors. It is also constructing a 500-MW fast breeder reactor, which it expects to begin production in March 2011. The fast-breeder reactor is central to India's three-stage nuclear programme, which will eventually use fast-breeder reactors to irradiate thorium, the radioactive element of which India holds roughly 25 per cent of world reserves, allowing it to be turned into nuclear fuel.

Indian private sector companies are also lobbying hard for the laws to be changed to allow them to launch their own nuclear plants. Reliance Power, GMR and GVK have all said that they are in discussions with reactor vendors. business@thenational.ae