An indigenous nuclear reactor at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Project in Gujarat achieving criticality reflects a major milestone in India’s domestic civilian nuclear programme. The 700- MWe unit is the first in the series of such indigenously developed variants of the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) and comes as a trailblazer for many such future achievements. The PHWRs, which use natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as moderator, are the mainstay of the country’s nuclear reactor fleet. This will not only ensure self-sufficiency but also secures India’s position as a potential exporter. The reactor, built by state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCL), demonstrates the mastery that Indian nuclear scientists have attained over all aspects of indigenous PHWR technology. Though India has 22 nuclear reactors in operation at seven nuclear power plants with a total installed capacity of 6,780 MWe, nuclear power accounts for only 3-4% of supply. Most of these reactors are based on Canadian heavy water technology, followed by Russian designs. The operationalisation of India’s first 700 MWe reactor marks a significant scale-up in technology in terms of optimisation of its PHWR design. The 700MWe reactors will be the backbone of a new fleet of 12 reactors for which the government accorded administrative approval and financial sanction in 2017. Nuclear energy is a smart option for a country like India where millions of people still don’t have access to power and the domestic energy consumption demand has more than doubled since 2000.
The 2005 Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, signed by the UPA-I government, opened new avenues of nuclear business for the country, ending a prolonged international isolation due to nuclear tests. The Nuclear Suppliers Group agreement enabled sourcing fuel from other countries. India now has civil nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries, including France, Russia, UK, US and Japan. There is a need to leverage international experience to improve efficiency in project implementation, operations and possible expansion. With the indigenous expertise, the domestic industry is well placed to supply all the required components and materials for the new reactors. There is an expectation that India will acquire capabilities to supply enriched uranium from its own enrichment facilities within a decade. As India gears up to increase its existing nuclear power capacity to 22,480 MWe by 2031, the 700MWe capacity would constitute the biggest component of the expansion plan. Currently, nuclear power capacity constitutes less than 2% of the total installed capacity of 3.68 lakh MW as of January 2020. This is apart from the isotope enrichment plants being developed to supply part of the required enriched uranium fuel to power these new generation reactors over the coming decades.
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