Following the Nuclear Supplier Group's waiver in September 2008, India seems ready to take its place in the world of nuclear trade -- not just as a purchaser, but as a supplier, too. It appears that Kazakhstan is in line to be India's first customer for indigenously developed 220 megawatt electric (MWe) Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). The proposed sale seems likely to follow the civil nuclear agreement signed by the two countries in January 2009.
In addition to Kazakhstan, a number of Southeast Asian and African countries are also in serious talks with the Indian state-owned nuclear industry major, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), for possible reactor purchases. The sales would serve to underline that India will not be content to remain a mere recipient of nuclear technology, but has actually set its sights quite a bit higher.
During its 34-year "nuclear winter," India focused on attaining mastery over all aspects of nuclear energy. While it met with limited success in some areas, it attained world-class capability in others, one of them being small PHWR technology. The IAEA defines small reactors as those having a capacity of 300 MWe or less. Reactors of this size make great sense for countries with modest requirements -- of less than 10,000 MWe, for instance. Even a single 1,000 MWe reactor would be more of a liability for such countries, since any shutdown, routine or otherwise, cannot be handled by a small grid.
On the other hand, India's 220 MWe PHWRs fit nicely into such a picture, with an added selling point being that India operates more than a dozen such reactors itself, and has done so for over 30 years now. While the technology was initially reverse-engineered from CANDU reactors imported from Canada, India has innovated considerably on the safety and fuel efficiency of subsequent models. It has also made the technology cheaper, a crucial consideration for this type of reactor's potential buyers.
PHWR technology also offers other advantages to operators. For one, such reactors can be refueled while generating power, once again making life easier for grid management in small countries. These reactors run on natural uranium, thereby obviating the need for enrichment -- an expensive and technologically difficult proposition. Indeed, India's initial interest in PHWRs as opposed to light water reactors (LWRs) was due to its inability to enrich uranium on an industrial scale and the lack of international cooperation on its nuclear program.
Kazakhstan, of course, belongs to the club of countries that need small reactors. It is looking at Indian-supplied reactors for the Western part of its country, and is interested in joint manufacture of some components. For its part, Kazakhstan is extremely rich in uranium, with 15 percent of the world's reserves. It is being courted heavily by uranium-hungry countries, such as India and China. India, in particular, covets Kazakhstan's supplies, since Australia -- the world's largest holder of uranium reserves -- refuses to sell to New Delhi until it joins the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Although China currently has the advantage in Kazakhstan and is engaged in mining activities there, it has not yet supplied Kazakhstan with reactors. Moreover, China does not really have an active commercial small-reactor program suitable for export. India on the other hand is willing to engage Kazakhstan in joint manufacturing as well as training programs. Besides buying uranium, India is also likely to enter the mining sector in Kazakhstan. India's engagement with Namibia and Mongolia, both of whom have signed bilateral civil nuclear agreements with New Delhi recently, seems to be proceeding along similar lines.
Innovations in technology are likely to spearhead India's strategic moves on the world nuclear stage. As a nation deficient in uranium yet abundant in thorium, Indian nuclear planners historically prioritized thorium research. That effort has made India one of the few countries in the world with a fully developed thorium-using reactor design in the form of the 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR).
In a recent conference in New Delhi, NPCIL unveiled the latest AHWR model: the AHWR-LEU (low enriched uranium). This reactor will utilize enriched uranium -- instead of plutonium as in the AHWR -- along with thorium fuel, and is being touted for export. According to Indian Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar, speaking at the International Atomic Energy Agency's General Conference, "The reactor has a significantly lower requirement of mined uranium per unit energy produced as compared to most of the current generation thermal reactors."
This is an important consideration in an age where uranium production is insufficient to meet global demand. AHWR-LEU is also proliferation resistant and serves as a technological symbol of India's commitment to non-proliferation. By contrast, China has supplied fissile plutonium-generating 30 MWe "research reactors" to countries such as Syria and Ghana.
India is also offering a fuel relationship along with this reactor, thereby signaling its expertise in the fabrication and reprocessing of thorium-based fuels. Indeed, even in the case of the PHWRs, India will have to extend fuel guarantees to clients, similar to the assurances that it seeks for itself from countries such as the United States. However, this also means that the recipient country becomes dependent on India for its energy security. This is even more the case if thorium fuels are involved in the future, since fuel for PHWRs may be sourced from elsewhere, but it is unlikely that fuel for a thorium-optimized reactor will be as easy to procure. Clearly, India is counting on its investment in small reactor technology and thorium fuels to yield high strategic returns yet.
**Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. His first book for Harper Collins India, "The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power," is scheduled for publication in January 2010. He also works as an independent consultant in the energy sector in India.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.