Russian role

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

RUSSIA'S announcement that it will supply a consignment of low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for the first two units of the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) in Maharashtra must have cheered up the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The two United States-built light water reactors (LWRs) of 160 MWe capacity each use LEU as fuel and light water as both coolant and moderator.

Under an inter-governmental agreement signed by India and Russia in October 2000, Russia first supplied 50 tonnes of LEU to TAPS-1 and 2 in 2001. On March 14, it announced that it would again deliver LEU to the two reactors.

According to informed sources in the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), the latest consignment will also be 50 tonnes. The sources said the reactors could operate with the first consignment itself up to 2008 and that the second consignment "will easily last for another four to five years", that is, up to 2012 to 2013.

The LEU from Russia will be converted into fuel bundles clad in zircaloy by the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC), Hyderabad, and the bundles will be fed into the reactor.

Shortage of LEU has bedevilled TAPS-1 and 2 from 1980, after the U.S. reneged on its 1963 agreement to supply the fuel for 30 years. The U.S. did so, citing domestic laws after India conducted its peaceful nuclear experiment (PNE) at Pokhran, Rajasthan, in May 1974.

It was on May 8, 1964, that a contract was signed by India and the U.S. for constructing two LWRs of 210 MWe each on the shore of the Arabian Sea at Tarapur in Thane district, about 150 km from Mumbai. General Electric built the two reactors, which became critical in 1969. The Pokhran test in 1974 angered the U.S., which first delayed the shipment of LEU and finally stopped it in 1980. In 1982, France stepped in and agreed to supply LEU from 1983 for the remaining period of the agreement, that is, up to 1993. The two reactors were de-rated in 1984 to 160 MWe each. In 1994-95, China reportedly supplied 30 tonnes of LEU.

Meanwhile, India developed mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which replaced enriched uranium partly. Under the inter-governmental agreement of October 2000, Russia first supplied 50 tonnes of LEU but was unable to resume supplies because of objections from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG). The NSG guidelines bar its members (Russia is a member) from supplying nuclear technology or fuel to those countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India is not a signatory to the NPT.

The U.S. is not amused by Russia's latest decision. Russia made the offer on the eve of its Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's visit to India on March 16 and 17. (The spadework was done in December 2005 itself during Manmohan Singh's visit to Moscow and the two countries waited for the March 2 agreement.)

Sergei Novikov, spokesman for the Russian atomic energy agency Rosatom, told The Hindu in Moscow on March 14: "We have informed the Nuclear Suppliers' Group that we are delivering the fuel to the Tarapur reactor[s]." He said that although the supply violated NSG guidelines, it was motivated by safety considerations. "It is necessary to replace the fuel at Tarapur to avoid serious safety risks resulting from over-burning of old fuel," Novikov explained.

The U.S. called the deal premature because India was yet to implement the nuclear separation agreement it signed with the U.S. on March 2, during U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to India. The separation agreement was a sequel to the Joint Statement made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bush on July 18, 2005. The State Department said although India needed the LEU, such "deals should move forward on the basis of a joint initiative, on the basis of steps that India will take that it has not yet taken".

Fradkov defended the offer saying that it "does not contradict international commitments". India took the stand that the Russian offer "really has no connection to our nuclear deal with the United States", that there was no violation of the NSG guidelines, and that Russia had approached the NSG under the "safety exception clause".

The claim that the Russian offer was made to obviate serious safety risks because the reactors needed fuel and over-burning of old fuel had to be averted seems to be a red herring. For, beginning from October 1, 2005, TAPS-1 and 2 underwent a campaign of renovation, modernisation and safety upgradation that lasted four and a half months at a cost of Rs.20 crores, and both were reconnected to the grid on February 16. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board has permitted the two reactors to operate for another five years. They were operating "smoothly" at 160 MWe each when the Russian offer came.

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