Nuclear power

Kudankulam ready for more

Print edition : November 11, 2016

In Goa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin press a button to mark the start of foundation-concrete laying work at Kudankulam for units 3 and 4 on October 15. Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI

The first pour of foundation concrete for units 3 and 4 at Kudankulam, watched from the stage by NPCIL head S.K. Sharma and Atomstroyexport president Valery Limarenko, on October 15. Photo: A. Shaikmohideen

The foundation laying work for reactor units three and four has begun and talks for units five and six are under way.

THE Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) site on 2,619 acres in Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu, is buzzing with construction activity and the mood is effervescent. The first Russian unit, called VVER-1000, has been generating its full power output of 1,000 MWe from February 22. The second unit, also a Russian VVER-1000, reached criticality on July 10 and was synchronised with the electricity grid on August 29. It is undergoing “phase C” checks, with its electricity output being raised in stages. It is expected to generate its full power of 1,000 MWe by the end of 2016.

On October 15, at Benaulim, Goa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin pressed a button to signal the start of the foundation concrete laying work for reactor units 3 and 4 of 1,000 MWe each. Simultaneously, at the Kudankulam site, S.K. Sharma, Chairman and Managing Director, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), and Valery Limarenko, president, Atomstroyexport, waved green flags as concrete was poured into the foundation pits. The first pour of nuclear concrete, which signals the start of construction of the two units, is expected to take place in the first quarter of financial year 2017-18. The estimated cost of building Kudankulam 3 and 4 is Rs.39,849 crore. While Atomstroyexport, the Russian state company, will supply the technology, the equipment, the components and the individual systems, NPCIL will build the reactors as was the case with Kudankulam 1 and 2.

Meanwhile, the situation is bright for the construction of the fifth and sixth VVER-1000 units as well. Techno-commercial negotiations between India and Russia for the same are under way. When the entire project is complete, Kudankulam will have six Russian reactors, all built by NPCIL, with an installed capacity of 6,000 MWe. Kudankulam is already the single-largest nuclear power station in India, with an installed capacity of 2,000 MWe from two units.

Sekhar Basu, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), told Frontline on October 17: “Things are progressing well. By the end of this year, we expect the contract to be signed for units 5 and 6. It is called the General Framework Agreement [GFA].” Sometime in the future, construction of four reactor units, that is, 3, 4, 5 and 6, would be under way simultaneously at Kudankulam, said Basu, who is also Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

Under a sovereign agreement, Russia will supply the fuel, enriched uranium, for the six units for their lifetime. The VVER units are Light Water Reactors (LWRs) that use slightly enriched uranium as fuel and light water as coolant. Kudankulam 1 and 2 have opened the line for the development of the LWR technology in India.

The current hectic activity at Kudankulam is a far cry from the late 1980s and the 1990s when the KKNPP was virtually a non-starter. On November 20, 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA), but the project almost fell through because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and differences over the rouble-rupee repayment ratio.

For the next 10 years the project remained in limbo. Under the original schedule, the first unit ought to have been generating electricity from 1998. A supplementary agreement to the IGA, signed on June 21, 1998, in New Delhi by Russian Minister for Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov and AEC Chairman R. Chidambaram, revived the project. Russia’s willingness to sign this agreement just a month after India exploded five nuclear devices at Pokhran in Rajasthan was a bold signal to the U.S. and the West that Russia would stand by its cooperation with India in nuclear power ( Frontline, July 17, 1998).

U.S. pressure

In 1993,U.S. President Bill Clinton succeeded in pressuring Soviet President Boris Yeltsin not to transfer cryogenic technology to India to propel the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles. Emboldened by this success, the U.S. pressured Russia again not to sell the VVER-1000 reactors to India. Informed sources in the DAE and ISRO said “commercial considerations” and “market share” were behind the U.S. pressuring Russia on these issues. Then the U.S. insisted that Russia, being a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which was formed in 1992, could not sell nuclear reactors to India unless India put all its nuclear facilities under full-scope safeguards. Russia argued that since the NSG was formed four years after the IGA between India and Russia on Kudankulam was signed, the NSG guidelines would not apply to Kudankulam. That is, Russia could sell nuclear reactors to India. Anyway, the two Kudankulam reactors would come under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards, Russia pointed out.

The first pour of concrete for units 1 and 2 took place at Kudankulam on March 31, 2002. The first unit was to reach criticality in March 2007. The project was six months ahead of schedule in 2004 but fell behind because of delays in the supply of designs, drawings and equipment by Russia. When the first unit was all set for criticality in December 2011, a sustained agitation led by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) in the nearby coastal fishing villages against the project stalled the reactor’s start-up. The KKNPP was back on the rails in March 2012 and the first unit reached criticality on July 13, 2013. However, S.K. Agrawal, who led from the front in building the project, was not alive to see the day ( Frontline, August 9, 2013).

Today, at the site, construction crew for units 3 and 4 have moved into a big administrative building which S.K. Sharma inaugurated on October 15.

Sekhar Basu said: “The first pour of concrete has taken place in some areas. But it has not taken place in all areas. We have completed four or five levels. It will be three to four months before we go ahead full swing on units 3 and 4. We have to match with the AERB’s [Atomic Energy Regulatory Board] regulations.” He was confident that the GFA for the fifth and the sixth reactors would be signed by the end of 2016. He said there would not be any big changes in the technical specifications for pairs 1 and 2, and 3 and 4. “Whatever [safety features] are there in 3 and 4 will be there in 5 and 6,” the AEC Chairman said.

“Reasonable” cost

S.K. Sharma was confident that “with the experience we have gathered from building units 1 and 2” the construction of units 3 and 4 would be on schedule. The cost for units 3 and 4 at Rs.39,849 crore works out to Rs.20 crore per MWe, whereas the cost for the indigenous PHWRS 7 and 8 with a total capacity of 1,400 MWe under construction at Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan was Rs.12,300 crore, or about Rs. 9 crore per MWe. Asked about this huge cost difference, Sharma explained that the cost of units 7 and 8 at Rawatbhatta was worked out six or seven years ago. The estimated cost of construction of Kudankulam 3 and 4 was “reasonable” because the cost had been worked out recently and unit 3 would reach criticality 69 months after the first pour of nuclear concrete takes place in April 2017, Sharma said.

He asserted that “the law of the land will apply” with regard to the supplier of equipment paying compensation in case of an accident in Kudankulam 3 and 4 units.

Asked whether NPCIL had mastered the technology of building LWRs with the construction of the first two units at Kudankulam, he said that with the implementation of units 1 and 2 in technical collaboration with Russia, the Indian side, including Indian industry, had got good exposure and experience in these technologies. He explained: “Today, our confidence in taking forward such technologies with exacting standards is strengthened. However, as a matter of principle, there can never be, or rather there should never be, any complacency in the business of nuclear technology. The safety culture in the nuclear industry in general and at NPCIL in particular has been accorded the highest priority. Considering the current expansion plans of the Indian nuclear programme, we have a long way to go, and every project is a learning experience every time for those who implement it.”

The tendering process was over for the supply of long-delivery equipment for building two indigenous PHWRs of 700 MWe at Gorakhpur in Haryana, Sharma said. The site had the potential to accommodate two more reactor units, he added.

The NPCIL was in an advanced stage of land acquisition at Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan and at Chutka in Madhya Pradesh for 700 MWe indigenous PHWRs. “The land acquisition will be a clean process. While acquiring land from people, we will pay them [a good] compensation and rehabilitate them as well,” Sharma said.

N. Nagaich, Director, Human Resources, NPCIL, was confident that the first pour of nuclear concrete for Kudankulam 3 and 4 would take place in April 2017. Excavation work for the foundation for several buildings for both units had been completed.

R.S. Sundar, Site Director, Kudankulam, 1, 2, 3 and 4, said the first pour of foundation concrete for Kudankulam 3 and 4 was a “positive development for the nuclear industry, especially for NPCIL and the team at Kudankulam”. The first unit had performed consistently well except for a couple of minor turbine trips, but “we came back to power generation within a few hours”, Sundar said.

The second unit reached criticality in July and NPCIL could synchronise it with the grid in a month’s time, in August. It was now undergoing phase C activities, which involved synchronisation with the grid and raising the power output. Phase A activities included commissioning of various individual systems and components and the hot-run of the reactor. Phase B involved loading of the fuel into the reactor and commissioning it, Sundar explained.

The foundation for various buildings, such as the reactor building and the turbine building, was around nine metres deep, KKNPP officials said. The foundation was 10 metres deep for a few buildings. In the coming weeks, rocky and undulating surfaces in the foundation pits would be levelled with cement concrete. Confirmatory investigation of subsoil in terms of its capacity to hold 300 tonnes of load had been completed for the reactor building and the turbine building of the third unit.

A KKNPP engineer said: “We have done the plate-load tests— whether the soil can take a load of 300 tonnes—which is twice the design value for Kudankulam 3. This is a confirmatory investigation. The soil parameters are all right. If minor crevices are found after this, they will be filled with consolidation grouting. These are the activities we have to perform before the levelling course is done.”

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