`Nuclear electricity is the answer'

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with S.K. Jain, CMD, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) has been on a golden run for the past five years. The gestation period of its projects has come down from 13 to five years. The average capacity factor of its 14 nuclear power reactors has jumped to 90 per cent in 2002-2003 from 71 per cent in 1997-98. Unit 1 of the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station, Gujarat, was adjudged the best performing Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) in the world for the period between October 2001 and September 2002.

NPCIL has saved Rs.700 crores from the construction of the Tarapur Atomic Power Project (TAPP)-3 and 4 (540 MWe each), which are set to reach criticality a year ahead of schedule. It has informed the Union government that it will construct the third and fourth reactors at Kaiga, Karnataka, at a cost of Rs.3,100 crores instead of the allotted Rs.4,200 crores. NPCIL's profit for 2002-2003 stands at Rs.1,622 crores, which is a 15 per cent increase over the previous year's figure of Rs.1,412 crores.

It is building nine nuclear reactors in the country now - the largest number under construction in any country in the world. When completed in the next few years, they will generate 4,460 MW of electricity. NPCIL's goal is to generate 20,000 MWe of nuclear electricity by 2020. In keeping with this mood, NPCIL is all set to announce a "sizable" reduction in the electricity tariff for the State Electricity Boards.

Shreyans Kumar Jain, who took over as Chairman and Managing Director of the NPCIL on January 3 from V.K. Chaturvedi, said India was into the second stage of its nuclear power programme - that of building fast breeder reactors (FBRs). "In the backdrop that no country is building breeder reactors, we are building a PFBR (Prototype Fast Breeder of 500 MWe). So you can imagine our confidence level in its design and technology," says Jain, who is also the Managing Director of the newly formed Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI), which is building the PFBR at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu. The Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, which is headed by S.B. Bhoje, has designed the PFBR.

"On the PHWR front, we have demonstrated our capability to design, construct and operate nuclear power stations at the highest level of plant load factor (PLF) and maintain nuclear safety as well," he said. Jain, a mechanical engineering graduate of 1969, joined the erstwhile Power Projects Engineering Division (renamed NPCIL in 1987) after a year's training in Nuclear Engineering and Sciences at the BARC Training School at Trombay. In the last three decades of his service with NPCIL, he has shouldered responsibilities covering the entire spectrum of activities relating to the setting up of nuclear electricity projects - locating the site, designing, engineering, construction, commissioning, project management, regulatory review and dealing with international agencies.

Excerpts from an interview he gave T.S. Subramanian in Mumbai on January 14:

NPCIL is in the commercial domain, with 14 reactors generating about 2,820 MWe. Nine more are under construction. Where does it go from here?

In the beginning, when nuclear power reactors were built at Tarapur and Rawatbhatta, we utilised the technology for understanding its complications, and after we absorbed the technology we transferred it to the industry. Fortunately, there were a large number of willing partners who, without bothering about the future prospects, came forward and supported our atomic energy programme by absorbing this technology and perfecting it. From that phase, we went to a stage where we had to demonstrate that this technology was viable. From there, we concentrated all our energy to prove that we can fabricate the equipment, construct nuclear power reactors with our own technology, operate them, and be world-class.

The last phase took place in the past five years, and we went a step forward in demonstrating that nuclear power was commercially competitive and viable. In order to achieve this, we were clear about the areas to be attacked. One was to reduce the gestation period of the construction of our nuclear power plants. We had a number of brainstorming sessions with industry, in which the leading industries that had contributed to the establishment of the atomic energy programme explained how they could improve upon schedules for the fabrication of equipment and in the construction of the nuclear power plant.

With the help of these industrial partners, we developed a joint strategy of introducing mega-packages and this was implemented successfully at Tarapur (for the current construction of two reactors of 540 MWe capacity). Within the government set-up, apprehensions were expressed about this strategy. But TAPP has proved these apprehensions unfounded. The strategy has worked very well. We are definitely going to breach the six-year barrier for constructing a nuclear power reactor. We will definitely commission TAPP-4 this year - in five years since the first pour of the concrete. TAPP-3 will attain criticality later.

The construction of TAPP-4 is almost complete. A number of systems have undergone pre-commissioning tests, and some of these have even reached the stage of final commissioning. We have started round-the-clock operations in the control room.

NPCIL attaches great importance to TAPP-3 and 4 because these two 540 MWe reactors were conceived, designed and nurtured by our own nuclear experts, designers and R&D experts. These reactors are the culmination of a dream. For the earlier 220 MWe PHWRs, some information, some parallel design and some parallel equipment were available. But we had to develop the TAPP 540 MWe reactors totally on our own. NPCIL is clear that TAPP-3 and 4 are its topmost priority. The second priority is to complete the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project.

At what stage is Koodankulam's progress?

We are working with the Russian organisation called Atomstroyexport. It was apprehensive whether we will be able to meet the targets we have set ourselves. But the progress in the last 20 months has convinced it that we mean business. We had planned to construct the Koodankulam reactors in six years. [We told the Russians] that when we plan to construct our indigenous reactors in five years, to construct the Koodankulam reactors in six years with Russian help would set a bad precedent.

In parallel, we are hastening the schedule for the fabrication of equipment in Russia. The fabrication of the reactor pressure vessel takes three years and it really decides the total construction time of the project. With our expertise, we demonstrated in Russia and convinced our Russian manufacturing partner that it could do the job faster. As against 36 months, it has agreed to deliver the pressure vessel in 28 months. This has become possible because our engineers who have been deputed there are working round the clock seven days a week. This dedication has set an example to the Russians, and they have started emulating us. They have accepted the challenge to build a 1,000 MWe reactor in five years in a developing country.

All major equipment such as the nuclear steam supply system, turbine and condenser will be ready by October for shipment to Koodankulam. Today (January 14), a ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of equipment will be buzzing at the Koodankulam jetty, which was commissioned recently for offloading equipment.

On the civil engineering side, work is progressing ahead of schedule, at breakneck speed, at the site. It has put a lot of pressure on our Russian partners in the form of issuing working drawings. This job is being monitored in Russia by a former First Deputy Minister for Atomic Energy.

E.A. Reshetnikov?

Yes. He has joined Atomstroyexport as its first vice-president. He is a dynamic engineer who has constructed more than 45 reactors. He is monitoring the supply of equipment and he has joined hands with us in meeting the objective of completing the reactors in five years. We had planned a gap of one year between unit 1 and 2. We are confident that it will be reduced to six months. So there will be a total gain of one year and a half in the project schedule and the progress made so far is encouraging.

During the Tenth Plan, two reactors of 540 MWe capacity each (at Tarapur), and one reactor of 220 MWe are planned to be added to the grid. Our internal target is also to add one reactor at Koodankulam and one at Rawatbhatta to the grid during the Tenth Plan. As per the plan approved by the Government of India, we have to start work this year on two reactors of 700 MWe capacity each. From Tarapur-3 and 4 onwards, we will be building only 700 MWe PHWRs.

Incidentally, the site selection committee (SSC) of the government has finalised its report, which is being reviewed by the DAE. It will soon go to the Cabinet for a decision on the sites for future reactors.

Will Jaitapur and Ujaini in Maharashtra be among them?

I can share one thing with you. The SSC's report is a long-term report. It addresses long-term planning, not limited by the goal of 2020 (achieving 20,000 MWe of nuclear power). It considers for the next 10 years the nuclear routes to traverse. Globally, every country selects a site, uses it to the maximum potential and then moves to another site. We should also follow this - exploit the potential of the existing sites.

We have three coastal sites: Kalpakkam, Koodankulam and Tarapur. At Kalpakkam, in addition to the existing two PHWRs of 220 MWe each, the PFBR is coming up. We have the potential for another 4,000 MWe (four reactors) at Koodankulam. Two more reactors of a total capacity of 2,000 MWe can be accommodated at Tarapur.

Is the Tarapur site so big?

I am speaking about the potential from the point of view of availability of water. We have potential at Kakrapar, Narora and Rawatbhatta.

I can share with you another strategy - that the coastal sites will be for larger-sized reactors, that is, 1,000 MWe reactors. So far we have got these 1,000 MWe reactors through the import route. Inland sites will be for 700 MWe units. Three reactors, of 700 MWe each, will come up at Kakrapar and Rawatbhatta [and Narora].

Do you plan to build indigenous reactors of 1,000 MWe capacity?

As of today no, because we have been saying that we plan to add 8,000 MWe through the import route. It is basically capacity add-on, that is, to increase the share of nuclear power in total electricity generation. These reactors will use enriched uranium, and will come basically through the import route and use imported fuel to start with.

The Russians have been lobbying hard for constructing two more reactors of 1,000 MWe each at Koodankulam. Will two more Russian reactors be built there?

At the industry level, there is a sincere desire that this cooperation between the two countries should not be limited to six reactors at Koodankulam but that India and Russia should develop a long-term partnership.

Six reactors at Koodankulam?

We have been talking of six reactors with Russian cooperation. Up to two have been cleared and are under construction now. But the industry... wants not only the realisation of the full potential of Koodankulam by adding four more reactors but the continuation of the cooperation beyond that. We hope that the international scenario will change. (We are sure) that various countries will appreciate India's nuclear stand and also our blemish-free record on proliferation... and then a case will open for cooperation in a very large area, including other major exporting countries such as America and France.

The hallmark of our nuclear power programme has been the overriding concern for safety. The safety factor is embedded in the culture of the various phases of our programme, right from choosing the site, designing the reactor and operating it. Seismicity of a site is a crucial input we use to locate a plant and to design equipment. As a result we have operated our reactors even during known seismic conditions. (The two reactors at Kakrapar continued to operate safely during the Bhuj earthquake in 2001.) Factors such as floods, earthquakes and dam-bursts are inputs that go into the design and layouts of our nuclear power plants... . The dedicated team of NPCIL is aware that if safety and quality are taken care of, we gain in an overall way in the sense of construction schedule, excellent operation and so on.

In the past five years, the gestation period of our nuclear power projects has come down and this has been one of the factors that contributed to a reduction in the cost of these projects. For instance, the estimated cost of the Kaiga Atomic Power Project-3 and 4, and TAPP-3 and 4 have come down drastically. For the first time in its history, NPCIL has gone to the Cabinet for a reduction in the estimated cost of these projects.

In the past six months, we have undertaken a study of financing, depreciation costs, cost of various inputs and other parameters that have an influence on the cost of nuclear power. This study is taking a final shape. As an outcome of that, the cost of nuclear power even from the existing stations at Tarapur, Kalpakkam, Kaiga, Kakrapar and Narora will become lower. This will lead us to an era where we shall be announcing a reduction in the tariff... (This will also apply) to plants that are coming up. We have made a number of proposals to the government. I am confident that very soon we shall get the approval and this will lead to NPCIL declaring a reduction of tariff. This will not be ornamental but sizable. This means that 10 to 15 per cent of the tariff will be reduced.

I heard that Kakrapar-I has been voted as the best performing PHWR in the world.

That is right. A large number of our reactors have logged more than 90 per cent PLF. The company's average PLF was 90 per cent in 2002-2003. Kakrapar was adjudged the best operating PHWR in the world. It had the highest PLF.

How much?

It was 98.6 per cent. R. Bhiksham, Station Director, Kakrapar Atomic Power Station, was given the first WANO (World Association of Nuclear Operators) Excellence Award in Berlin, Germany, in October 2003 for his contribution to excellence in the nuclear industry.

What lies beyond 20,000 MWe of nuclear power by 2020?

The Union Power Ministry and other agencies have expressed a desire that we should not be limited by the target of 20,000 MWe by 2020. President (A.P.J.) Abdul Kalam mentioned, during his visit to Kalpakkam on December 17, that NPCIL should generate 75,000 MWe by 2020.

We are reviewing various aspects - resources available, industrial capability and so on. Like France, nuclear electricity is the answer to India's energy requirements on a long-term basis.

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