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Nuclear Fuel For Sure, Nuclear Power, Not So Sure


Can I Take This Back To My Ranch (Pic Courtesy Business Standard/K Sudheer)

Kudankulam is an hour's drive north east of Kanyakumari at the southern most tip of India. The air is strikingly clean and the sky a cool blue. The morning sun beats down with a radiance you are unlikely to witness elsewhere. And not too far from all this pristine beauty, the waves lash the shore with considerable vigour.

The sea appears like a riot of brilliant colours..from light green to blue. Or is it your imagination ? We are, indeed, close to the confluence of three oceans, the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Down south in Kanyakumari, hawkers sell little plastic packets with three different colours of sand, to represent this. Seems fine in theory, but somehow difficult to believe. Obviously you never really see it anywhere.

Apart from the scenic beauty, Kudankulam is the site for a 2,000 MW nuclear power plant, India's largest and one of the world's biggest as well. The plant is being built by state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) with most of the turnkey construction being carried out by Ajit Gulabchand's Hindustan Construction Company (HCC).

We arrived at the heavily guarded facilities the previous evening, a three-hour drive from Trivandrum. And stayed over. It's early morning now and things are a lot clearer. Kudankulam tells you two things; one, large nuclear power plants are a big deal but not so big as we perhaps make them out to be. Second, building them is not that simple. And not because its an engineering challenge.

Symbolic Deal

The George Bush-Manmohan Singh nuclear deal has made much news. A few inisightful commentators rightly pointed that the symbolism behind the nuclear deal is greater than the deal itself. And yes, there are several other clauses of scientific co-operation. Possibly one will ensure we don't use ageing rocket technology (excellent as it was) for our mission to the moon.

Its the media hype that's a little unsettling. It somehow seems to suggest that we (a hopelessly power starved country) will have nuclear plants humming in every other district and town, supplying clean, energy efficient power to hungry homes and industries. And that this deal was the last hurdle in achieving that.

There are tonnes of debates on nucelear safety but this writer is inclined to believe that nuclear power is safer, cleaner than ever before. Also, more work is being done on this matter in the laboratories of General Electric in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Our first reactors at Tarapur near Bombay came from there as well. So, collaborating with the Americans or American companies is not a bad idea.

The problem, in this writer's mind, is a little more practical. Our track record in implementation of power plants in general is dismal. Our efforts at putting up nuclear plants, well, could be best be described as something you would associate with a perpetual pilot project.

Poor Track Record

Power is not only the government's fault. Well, both the private and the public sector have failed to match up to the energy needs of the nation. The private sector has had no role in nuclear but hopes to now. The government at large has been extremely tardy at clearing any form of power projects, particularly privately promoted. Together, the result is a figure which is very close to zero. Its tough to see how this will dramatically change in coming years.

To return to the azure waters of the Bay of Bengal, since we are parked on the eastern seaboard now. The Kudankulam plant was conceptualised in 1988, by, guess who, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. Since then, its been a series of roadblocks. The big one was that the Russian Federation disintegrated and a new Russia was formed.

Obviously, a fresh agreement had to be signed. I quote from The Hindu here. "So, in 1998, a fresh 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."

Projected Delays

Should be smooth sailing here on. After all, its a State-sponsored project. Well, not quite. By end 1998, early 1999 furious opposition began building up to the project. There were all sorts of problems cited. From the threat to the livelihood of local fishermen to the more ominous Russian reactors that would fire the plant. Actually, if you were to read to the `indiatogether.org' link above, you would wonder what in blazes were we doing with Russian reactors anyway ?

So, the project got delayed by about three years. Cut to the present. The first ground break happened in mid-2001. And the first concrete pour in 2002. As things stand, a little more than half the work has been completed. And target for commissioning is end 2007, early 2008. This makes it a construction span of 7-8 years, a project time-span years of 10 years. Or 20 years if you included the original Rajiv Gandhi signing. Do note that nuclear plants take much longer to build.

So, the sun is beating down a little more strongly in Kudankulam now. Work is on in full progress. Giant cranes are dumping concrete into the central reactor core. We take a trip ourselves. We are lifted maybe 50 storeys into the sky and then lowered, in a cage, into the reactor well. Its quite scary and impressive. The view from up there is staggering.

20,000 by 2020 ?

As is the target of generating 20,000 MW of nuclear energy by 2020. Total nuclear capacity today is 3,310 MW, but scattered across several small projects. Rest assured, even if nuclear fuel is flowing freely in taps, getting projects off the ground will be nightmarish. Expect howls of protest for any project on the coast. And don't expect the ones inland to be spared either. Its bad enough trying to set up a normal thermal or gas-based power plant.

Ask any of the American companies who ran way in the 1990s after breaking their collective heads. And the list does not include Enron. Or look at it this way. The Aditya Birla Group succeeded in just doing everything they wanted, including buying a clothing franchise. But they couldn't set up a power plant. And they wanted to set up two at least. Ten years ago. Even the otherwise worldly-wise Reliance group has had not much success in greenfield power projects.

So, more than nuclear power, we have a power problem. Which will take considerable resolve to manage. And neither private or public or both can find any magic solutions. Changing nomenclatures every ten years, "fast track and mega to ultra-mega" is not helping either. And neither can you railroad the environmentalists. Often they have a point.

So it was nice to see George Bush visiting India. It was a good for many things. Nuclear power must be the least, in real terms. I particularly liked the picture of his, taken in Andhra Pradesh, holding a pickaxe on his shoulder. You have to admit he does some cool stuff. Even if it's a stunt. I could never think of AB Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh pitching a baseball with the New York Yankees.

Comments

qaminante said…
I preferred the pictures I saw on BBC World of him trying to play cricket ..
Anonymous said…
...Interesting article.....Saw this ridiculous program called Lights Out on your ex-channel the other day moderated by this yakkity-yakkity lady who believed that it was her perogative not to let anyone else speak....wonder why she called the panelists in the first place...It was a platform to highlight and establish that both the Government and Private players have not thought of Generation...that there should have had some blueprint...and what takes second place is Distribution....rest of it would have worked itself out...that apart , Madam was raising some rather inane questions....why I get upset with the way media treats these issues is...there are just so few avenues...and then we discuss trivial nonsense....
Anonymous said…
"Its the media hype that's a little unsettling" ??

Hi Govind, now that you are away from TV journalism you are actually beginning to understand what the rest of us mean by 'media hype'. Interesting.
Anonymous said…
saw your edit piece in BS - you finally are back where you belong.

Insightful piece - nice thing about it is that it is not arm chair reportage....

Glad to see you had the conviction to leave the insaneness of television for some more intellectual persuits which is more becoming of your talents - something that sets you apart from many of your peers....

way to go ethiraj... hope to see more of such pieces...
Sunil Mehta said…
I am not so sure either about the nuclear power. I really have begun to believe that this deal does not do anything for our country in the short term or the long term. Instead of focusing so much energy and expending valuable political capital; we should have just focused on multiple strategies to enhance our energy security. Our establishment is obsessed with symbols (permanent seat at the UNSC or this 'nuclear state' deal) instead of focusing on prosperity, which, in the ultimate analysis, will define our ability to influence world events.

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