Koodankulam is back

Print edition : July 04, 1998

By agreeing to provide the technology for two advanced light-water reactors for the Koodankulam power project, Russia has renewed its commitment to nuclear power cooperation with India.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

THE Koodankulam Atomic Power Project is all set to become a reality after having remained a non-starter for 10 years. On June 21, a supplementary agreement to the earlier Inter-Governmental Agreement was signed in New Delhi by Russian Minister for Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Dr. R. Chidambaram, who is also Secretary in the Department of Atomic Energy.

Under the agreement, two Russian reactors of the VVER-1000 type, each of which will generate 1,000 MW of electricity, will be built at Koodankulam in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu. Russia will supply low-enriched uranium, the fuel for them, for their life-time. Light water, or ordinary water, will serve as both coolant and moderator. Russia will provide India with soft- and long-term credit totalling $2.5 billion, which will cover 85 per cent of the cost of the services and supplies from the Russian side. The repayment will start a year after the units are commissioned.

Koodankulam is easily accessible by road, rail and sea. The nearest broad-gauge railhead is at Kanyakumari, 27 km away; further, Kanyakumari is at one end of the National Highway 7. The sea port at Tuticorin is about 100 km away. The reactors will come up on a site, facing the Gulf of Mannar in the Bay of Bengal.

A part of the site of the Koodankulam Atomic Power Project.-COURTESY: NPC

The Inter-Governmental Agreement was signed on November 20, 1988 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, but the project almost fell through because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and differences over the rouble-rupee repayment ratio. But for these, the first unit would have been ready by 1998.

There is an important difference between the supplementary agreement and the Inter-Governmental Agreement. The 1988 agreement envisaged a turn-key project. The Nuclear Powr Corporation of India Ltd (NPC) was to provide the site; the Soviet Union was to provide the design of the VVER-1000-type Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs), bring the equipment, components and spares, and build the reactors. The present one is a technical agreement, under which Russia will give the NPC the design and bring most of the equipment, and the NPC will build the reactors. In other words, India will build the plant with the Russian design. Russian personnel will be present at the site and will train NPC personnel in the operation and maintenance of the reactors.

(Left) Russian Minister for Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov and AEC Chairman Dr. R. Chidambaram sign the agreement for the project in New Delhi on June 21. Looking on (second from right) is NPC Chairman and Managing Director Y.S.K. Prasad.-PIB

A Detailed Project Report (DPR), which will provide details of the design, the scope of the work, the technical-financial offer based on the basic minimum cost and the unit energy cost and the economic viability of the project, is to be finalised in two years. It will also provide a safety analysis of the reactors for approval by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), India's watchdog body charged with the safety of nuclear installations. Russia will then submit a techno-commercial offer for the construction of the plant. This offer will include the supply of all services, including equipment, components and spares, and the fuel for the entire life of the reactors.

After the DPR is finalised, it will take six years for the two reactors, which will be built simultaneously, to come on-stream. The advanced light-water reactors are third-generation PWRs. As of 1996, about 20 VVER-1000 reactors were generating electricity in Russia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

Chidambaram said that the construction of the reactors of the VVER-1000 type "will open the line for the development of light water reactor technology in India." The reactors at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan, Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu, Narora in Uttar Pradesh and Kakrapar in Gujarat are of the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) type , and use uranium as fuel and heavy water as both moderator and coolant. Chidambaram said that India also planned to build fast breeder reactors and that the construction of the first commercial Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) of 500 MW capacity would begin at Kalpakkam during the Ninth Plan. According to him, between the implementation of the PHWR and fast breeder reactor programmes, both of which were indigenous, "some light-water reactors will be imported". Hence, the decision to import the VVER-1000 reactors. "They will be the launch pad for the development of light-water reactor technology in India. With these reactors, we hope to generate 20,000 MW of nuclear electricity by A.D. 2020," he said.

RUSSIA'S willingness to sign the supplementary agreement to revive the Koodankulam project, barely a month after the nuclear tests at Pokhran which drew condemnation worldwide, sends a signal to the West, especially the United States, that Russia stands committed to cooperation with India in the field of nuclear power. The U.S., which had succeeded in pressuring Russia not to sell India the cryogenic technology to power the Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles, stepped up pressure again on Russia not to sell the VVER-1000 reactors. Informed sources said that in both instances, the U.S. wanted to get "a market share" but could not. The U.S., therefore, insisted that as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, which was formed in 1992, Russia could not sell nuclear reactors to India unless the latter put all its nuclear facilities under full-scope safeguards.

The design of the VVER-1000 reactor. The two reactors at Koodankulam will open the line for the development of light-water reactor technology in India.-COURTESY: NPC

Russia, however, pointed out that the Koodankulam agreement was signed four years before the Nuclear Suppliers' Group was formed. It further said that the two reactors at Koodankulam would come under safeguards: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was free to send its inspectors to the reactors to see whether there was any diversion of fissile material to make weapons. After the Pokhran tests in May, there was renewed pressure on Russia, but Russia did not buckle this time.

The Chairman and Managing Director of the NPC, Y.S.R. Prasad, who was present at the signing of the suppmementary agreement, said that the spent fuel from Koodankulam "will not be sent to Russia just as we do not send the spent fuel from Tarapur (to the U.S.)." He added: "We can reprocess it and use it for our reactors. But the material will come under safeguards." The safeguards will be station-specific and will apply only to Koodankulam.

Sources in the NPC, who are associated with the Koodankulam project, said that about a thousand hectares of land had been acquired for the plant and that an additional 150 ha had been acquired to house the employees. Almost the entire land was barren. There has been no displacement of people. The sources said that the patta land had been taken possession of by the NPC, security fencing erected around the site and some roads laid.

The sources said that up to six reactors could be built at the site. The area where the first two reactors would come up had been identified and the Russians were satisfied with it, the sources said. Meteorological data had been collected and microseismic conditions investigated. It was a low seismicity area and was not prone to tremors or earthquakes. There was no risk of flooding either, the sources added.

The design of the 70-km-long pipeline that will bring water from the Pechipparai reservoir in Kanyakumari district has been finalised. The 500-mm-diameter steel pipes will run along road routes so as to obviate the need to acquire land. NPC sources said that water from Pechipparai would make good any loss of water in the systems. Sea water would be used for condenser cooling and dilution of effluents, as was being done at Kalpakkam, they said.

The sources said that there were no coral formations in the coastal region near the plant site. Fishing would not be affected because the temperature gradient of the coolant sea water at the discharge point would not be more than 50 C, as prescribed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.

IN a conversation with Frontline on September 6, 1997 in Chennai, Chidambaram said that the IAEA had listed the Russian VVER-1000 reactor among the world's best reactors. The reactors were not of the type at Chernobyl, where a meltdown occurred in 1986. The Chernobyl reactor of the RBMK type used graphite as moderator and boiling water as coolant. Chidambaram said: "The safety features of the VVER-1000 are comparable to the most advanced reactors in the world."

Sources in the NPC said that China had signed a contract with Russia to buy two identical VVER-1000 reactors. France and Canada were also interested. They added that efforts were under way to bring in the governments of the southern Indian States as equity partners, along with the NPC, in the Koodankulam project.

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