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Nuclear Power in India

Nuclear Power Station
Narora Atomic Power Station, Units 1 & 2
220 Megawatts each, Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh
(map of all India’s nuclear installations)

Editor’s Note: According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power is now used in 37 countries. As a huge, technologically advanced country, soon to be the most populous nation on Earth, it should be no surprise that India has a long-standing nuclear power industry.

In 1954, India’s First Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said “It is perfectly clear that atomic energy can be used for peaceful purposes,” as India even then was developing nuclear technology. In 1969 after years of effort, India’s first atomic power station went critical, in Tarapur, Maharashtra. Five years later, India tested an atomic bomb (list of nuclear club members).

There are 440 land-based nuclear power reactors today in the world (table of world’s reactors). They produce 16% of the world’s electricity, or put another way, at capacity world nuclear power generates an impressive 370 gigawatts of electric output. In the world today there are another 232 nuclear power stations either under construction or proposed, which in sum would add another 186 gigawatts to world output.

But as a share of total world energy consumption, of which electricity is only a part, that’s still small potatoes. What isn’t generally acknowledged is the proportion nuclear power stations contribute to overall world energy production is minute. If every current and proposed nuclear power station on earth operated at maximum output for an entire year (impossible), they would generate an estimated 556 gigawatt years of energy. Since it takes 33.5 gigawatt-years to equal the same amount of energy as one quadrillion BTU’s – these “quads” are how energy economists measure all energy production on earth – this means nuclear power, using a totally unrealistic best case, will eventually add 17 quadrillion BTU’s of energy per year to total world output. This is barely 4% of the energy we use now, since all of human civilization in 2006 will produce about 400 quadrillion BTU’s of energy.

In reality, nuclear power today provides barely 2% of the world’s total energy. This means nuclear fuel will remain relatively abundant unless nuclear power plants are constructed at a rate many times current production, and the economics of incrementally adding nuclear capacity will continue to appeal to nations that have already invested in a nuclear infrastructure. Obviously the French, with 59 operating reactors providing over 80% of their electricity, have decided nuclear power works for them.

What powers the world, overwhelmingly, is coal and petroleum. The fondest imaginings of nuclear power advocates will not change that proportion through nuclear power. Should nuclear power still be used? It can be economical and technically it is safer now than it has ever been. There is reason to believe nuclear technology will continue to advance. India has invested decades in nuclear industry, and with these massive investments made, can now develop nuclear power at a cost lower than ever before. Is it worth it? What’s worse, hydro-electric or nuclear? And aren’t both of those energy sources emissions-free?

Still usually missing from today’s energy production projections is any major ascendancy for renewables. For example, India’s photovoltaic industrial potential could be significant. Even if nuclear power continues to be developed in India, renewables are still going to be the only way off the coal & oil treadmill. – Ed “Redwood” Ring

India’s Nuclear Power – Assisting Energy Independence or a Dangerous Experiment?
by Avilash Roul, September 9, 2006
Rajasthan Atomic Power Station
Rajasthan Atomic Power Station, Units 3 & 4
220 Megawatts each, Chittorgarh, Uttar Pradesh
(map of all India’s nuclear installations)

With a growing economy, an increasing population, mounting energy demand, limited availability of conventional sources, and a strong consensus for environmental protection, India is harnessing energy ranging from jatropha biodiesel to atomic power.

Efficient, reliable and environmentally sustainable energy supplied to each household at the least possible cost is a dream of India’s government. While successive federal governments have been seeking energy security by 2012 for India, the current Scientist-President Abdul Kalam goes further to prescribe “Energy Independence” by 2032.

Energy independence is now India’s first and highest priority. To address this critical challenge, the base of the country’s energy supply system has steadily shifted from non-renewable to renewable sources as well as towards development of nuclear energy sources. Is India taking the right path to meet the energy requirements by emphasizing nuclear energy? Without nuclear energy, are there enough alternative energy sources to limited fossil fuels to meet future demand?

India, hosting fifteen percent of the world population and on track to replace China as the most populous country on Earth, ranks sixth in the world in terms of energy production. Experts believe demand for energy will soon surely be a defining characteristic of India’s life in the new millennium as India’s economy continues to grow at an average of 8 percent per year.

Though commercial primary energy consumption in India has grown by about 700 percent in the last four decades, India’s present level of energy consumption, by world standards, remains very low. The current per capita commercial primary energy consumption in India is about 350 Kilograms of Oil Equivalents per year (kgeo/yr) which is well below that of world average of 1,690 kgeo/yr. By 2010 per capita energy consumption is expected to increase around 450 kgoe/yr. Compared to this, the energy consumption in China is 1,200 kgeo/yr, Japan is over 4,050 kgeo/yr, South Korea is 4,275 kgeo/yr, the US is 7,850, and the OECD countries together average 4,670.


Coal has been and is the primary energy source in India as it accounts for 55 percent of India’s energy production (see Table-1). This abundant fossil fuel, which within India accounts for 247.85 billion tonnes of reserves as of 2005, can last for some 80 years at the current level of consumption. If domestic coal production continues to grow at the current rate of 5 percent per year, however, India’s total extractable coal reserves would run out in around 40 years.

Chart of India's Energy Consumption by Year and Source
(Data units “million tons equivalent in oil” or “MTEO”)
Source: BP Statistical Year Review 2005

With only half a percent of global reserves within India, oil nonetheless constitutes over 35 percent of the primary energy consumption in India. India’s present level of oil consumption is about 114 million metric tons of oil equivalent out of which India produces 25 percent i.e., 29 million metric Tons (MMT). India’s per capita consumption of oil and gas is one-third the global average. The reserves of crude oil are merely 739 MMT, which can sustain the current level of production for 22 years.

India’s Production of natural gas, which was almost negligible at the time of independence in 1949, in 2006 is at the level of around 87 million standard cubic meters per day (MMSCMD). Natural gas constitutes about 9 percent of India’s energy production, as compared to about 25 percent in the world. India already imports 20 per cent of its natural gas and this is predicted to go up to about 75 per cent by 2020.


To encourage next generation fuels and increased use of renewable sources of energy, India is probably the only country in the world with a full-fledged ministry dedicated to the production of energy from renewable energy sources, the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources ( As prescribed by the President of India, power generated through renewable energy technologies is targeted to reach 20 to 25 percent of total energy generated compared to the present 5 percent (See Table-2). The government is promoting the use of ethanol made from sugar cane and bio-diesel extracted from trees that are common in many parts of India, such as Jatropha, Karanja and Mahua. India’s Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources has put forward a goal for the nation to produce 60 million tons per year of bio-fuel.

Chart of Projected Indian Energy Consumption by Year and Source
(Data units “million tons equivalent in oil” or “MTEO”)
Source: Draft Report of the Expert Committee on Integrated
Energy Policy, Planning Commission, Government of India

India to-date has a total installed capacity of 870 megawatts based on biomass combustion, gasification and biomass cogeneration. Over 55 megawatts of the total was set up in the country just in 2005. India’s government is already promoting biomass based technologies in selected villages for meeting energy requirements, such as cooking, motive power and electricity generation under various schemes. Biomass gasifier based electricity generation projects adding a total capacity of 423 megawatts were sanctioned during 2005-06 to states like Tamil Nadu, Arunachal Paradesh, and Pondicherry under the Biomass Gasification Programme.

By mid-2005, India’s installed capacity of wind power had reached 3,740 megawatts. The present exploitable potential has been estimated at 14.5 gigawatts, when taking into consideration the grid constraints in the potential states. India’s wind power projects are mostly set up as commercial projects through private investments. According to a report by the American Wind Energy Association ( India currently ranks fifth in wind energy production, which is first place among developing countries. Under the wind resource assessment programme of the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources, so far a total of 211 sites have been identified in 13 States and Union Territories that are considered suitable for setting up wind power projects.

India is endowed with enormous economically exploitable hydro potential, assessed at about 84 gigawatts. To-date only around 18 percent of India’s hydro-electric potential has been harnessed. The sharply falling share of hydro in total energy production – from 46 percent in the 1970s to about 25 percent today – is cited as a serious problem confronting future development of hydro power. Opposition to large hydro infrastructure projects has been intensified because of the Indian government’s poor track record of resettlement and rehabilitation of the people displaced by these projects. Currently this opposition has effectively put a halt to future projects.

Rajasthan Atomic Power Station Construction
Rajasthan Atomic Power Station
New Units Under Construction


While India is amongst the top 10 countries of the world in terms of production of electricity by hydro, coal, oil and gas, it is nowhere near the top 10 with respect to nuclear power generation.

In spite of India becoming the sixth nation to become armed with nuclear weapons, after the 1998 nuclear tests, the contribution of nuclear power to India’s overall power generation is negligible, even less than what wind energy generates.

Since the much debated high profile July 18 2005 Indo-US Joint Statement on civilian nuclear cooperation in Washington last year, there has been a renewed interest on nuclear energy put forward by the pro-nuclear lobby in India.

From the perspective of India’s government, Indo-US cooperation will give new life to its nuclear program that has been handicapped by limitations of technology and fuel. While Western countries – with the exception of France which is unabashedly pro-nuclear power – are hesitantly moving towards further development of nuclear energy, the developing countries, especially India and China, are quickly gearing up to add nuclear energy to feed their rapidly growing economies. According to official announcements, China will be adding 40 gigawatts of nuclear power in the next 20 years while India adds 20 gigawatts.

Black & White Photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru at Power Plant with Engineers
“It is perfectly clear that atomic energy
can be used for peaceful purposes.”
Jawaharlal Nehru (on right), 1954

Historically, development of India’s nuclear technology has treaded carefully between the elusive thin line of civilian and military purposes.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India said in Lok Sabha (India’s Lower House of Parliament) on May 10, 1954, “It is perfectly clear that atomic energy can be used for peaceful purposes…it may take some years before it can be used more or less economically.” Experts believe that nuclear power, theoretically, offers India the most potent means to achieve long-term energy security. In practical terms, however, nuclear power may lack the logical preconditions, at least for India, to become their major source of independent energy.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), ( under the direct control of the Prime Minister of India has formulated an approach and perspective on the nuclear energy resource. Their three stage nuclear program calls for setting up of natural uranium fuelled Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) in the first stage, Fast Breeder Reactors utilizing a uranium-plutonium fuel cycle in the second stage, and Breeder Reactors utilizing thorium fuel in the third stage. India’s natural uranium deficiency has resulted in a commitment to this ambitious, technically challenging three-stage program designed to exploit the country’s thorium reserves, which at an estimated 290,000 metric tons are the second largest in the world.

India’s Coalition for Nuclear
Disarmament & Peace

According to the Indian government’s official view, nuclear power for civil use is well established in India. Its civil nuclear strategy has been directed towards complete independence in the nuclear fuel cycle. This self-sufficiency extends from uranium exploration and mining through fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design and construction, to reprocessing and waste management. The Atomic Energy Establishment was set up at Trombay in 1957 and renamed as Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC) ( ten years later. The first PHWR, the Rawatbhata-1 that had Canada’s Douglas Point reactor as a reference unit, was built as a collaborative venture between Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd ( and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) ( It commissioned in 1973 and was duplicated Subsequent indigenous PHWR development has been based on these units. The Rawatbhata-2 that commissioned in 1981 was also built by Canada. The NPCIL is responsible for design, construction, commissioning and operation of thermal nuclear power plants. The ten 220 MWe PHWRs (202 MWe each) were indigenously designed and constructed by NPCIL, based on Canadian design.

Chart of India's Currently Operating Nuclear Power Plants
Today 3,360 megawatts of India’s electricity capacity is nuclear.
Source: Nuclear Power Corporation of India

There are 15 nuclear power reactors in operation in India, 13 of which are PHWRs (See Table-3). Since 1969, when India’s first nuclear reactor was commissioned for power generation, the total amount of power generation till 2005 is peeked at 3,360 megawatts. Among these PHWRs, the RAPS-1 reactor in Rajasthan has been virtually non-operational since its commissioning in December 1973. In addition, eight nuclear power reactors are currently under construction, five of which are PHWRs (See Table-4). Their total amount of power generation is expected to be 3,920 megawatts. There are 8 reactors to be established in the near future adding another 6,800 megawatts of capacity (See Table-5). Between 2010 and 2020, construction of four 220 megawatt PHWRs, ten 700 megawatt PHWRs, three 500 megawatt FBRs and up to six 1,000 megawatt VVERs is projected, adding about 20,000 megawatts, half from PHWRs. India has achieved maturity in the first stage of this program, construction of PHWRs. The beginning of the second stage of the program has been made with the commencement of construction of a 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu in 2003. The third stage of the program will be launched after a sizeable base capacity has been built of the second stage reactors.

The two Tarapur 150 megawatt Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) built by GE on a turnkey contract before the advent of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were originally 200 megawatts but were de-rated due to recurrent problems. They have been using imported enriched uranium. However, late in 2004 Russia deferred to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and declined to supply further uranium for them. Then in March 2006 Russia agreed to resume providing a fuel supply.

Table of India's Nuclear Reactors Under Construction in 2006
India is adding 3,128 megawatts of nuclear power, nearly doubling their output.
Source: Nuclear Power Corporation of India

Russia is supplying the country’s first large nuclear power plant, comprising two VVER-1000 (V-392) reactors, under a Russian-financed US$ 3 billion contract. The units are being built by NPCIL. Russia will supply all the enriched fuel, though India will reprocess it and keep the plutonium. The first unit is due to be commissioned late in 2007. These are apart from India’s 3-stage plan for nuclear power and are simply to increase generating capacity more rapidly.

In 2005 four sites were approved for eight new reactors. Two of the sites – Kakrapar and Rawatbhata, are to have 700 megawatt indigenous PHWR units, another is to have imported 1,000 megawatt light water reactors alongside the two being constructed by Russia at Kudankulam, and the fourth site is greenfield for 1,000 megawatt LWR units – Jaitapur in the Konkan region. Acquisition of any further light water reactors depends upon international political approvals.

Table of Approved New Nuclear Reactors in India
India has already approved construction of new
nuclear reactors adding another 6.8 gigawatts.
Source: Nuclear Power Corp., India

India’s long-standing civilian nuclear plans call for extensive reprocessing of spent fuel from current reactors to harvest plutonium. The plutonium would then be used in a new generation of reactors to breed uranium-233 from blankets of thorium that would surround the plutonium fuel. Many decades into the future, the dream is to have a thorium-based fuel cycle that would ensure India’s energy independence into the distant future. However, anti nuclear experts believe that the long-term nuclear energy strategy is so technologically and economically dubious that no outside observers think it is viable.

Despite concerns against nuclear energy coming from the anti-nuclear establishment as well as civil society organizations in India, today there is a consensus across the major political parties that given India’s existing and future energy needs, nuclear power provides a potentially attractive alternative. But nearly 60 years after its inception, the nuclear establishment in India has failed to deliver what the pro-nuclear lobby had promised. At this point, even if a 20-fold increase takes place in India’s nuclear power capacity by 2031-32, the contribution of nuclear energy to India’s energy mix is, at best, expected to be 5-6 percent.

In 1954, India’s Atomic Energy Commission declared that nuclear plants would provide 8,000 megawatts of electricity by 1980-81. Yet by 1970, only 420 megawatts of electricity were coming from nuclear plants. In 1971, Vikram Sarabhai, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Committee sought to bring Indian nuclear planning down to earth and scaled back projections, saying that by 1980-81, India would be producing 2,700 megawatts of electricity from nuclear plants. Thirty-five years later Indian nuclear plants are producing roughly 3,360 MW of electricity. But undaunted, the Indian pro-nuclear lobby now proclaims that India will produce 24,000 MW of nuclear power by 2010 and 50,000 MW of electricity from nuclear plants by the year 2030!

Four Nuclear Fuel Bundles
Nuclear Fuel Bundles

The fact remains that despite its great size, India has the misfortune to have been poorly endowed with natural uranium. It has been estimated that these modest reserves of about 70,000 metric tons will suffice to produce no more than approximately 420 gigawatt-years of electric power, if used in the PHWRs currently operating or under construction. On the other hand people won’t let the government dig new uranium mines, so even these modest reserves may never be fully exploited.

India still faces severe challenges regarding the operational safety of all kinds of nuclear installations, from uranium mines to nuclear power stations. While the government boasts that the management and disposal of waste has been carried out fairly satisfactorily, there remain severe criticisms on the over all activities of nuclear energy. Public protests against Uranium Corporation of India Ltd’s (UCIL) ( have prevented it from opening up any new mine since 1985.

In last six months in 2004, UCIL has tried thrice to set up new uranium mines in Andhra Pradesh, Meghalaya and Jharkhand but hasn’t got permission anywhere.

Uranium Corporation of India Limited Logo

The Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya governments have agreed to UCIL’s proposal in principle, but have withheld permission because of public pressure and nuclear activist campaigns focusing on UCIL’s poor safety record in Jaduguda in Jharkhand.

Independent studies have alleged that irresponsible handling of uranium ore had put some 50,000 people in Jaduguda at risk and caused genetic deformities in the area. Though Domiasat village in Meghalaya’s West Khasi Hills contains India’s largest and richest uranium reserve, UCIL officials are not welcomed by the indigenous communities in the Domiasat.


There are also serious problems to do with treating and disposing of the large volumes of highly radioactive waste generated not only by nuclear reactors but also by plants that extract plutonium or produce nuclear fuel. There is also the question of cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors after their useful life. Safety of nuclear reactors has also become an issue of concern.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) ( had revealed about 130 incidents where safety had been compromised in various nuclear reactors, particularly Narora 1 and 2 and Kaiga. Also, there is a tremendous pressure on nuclear reactors safety from outside like terrorists attacks.

The Coalition of Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) (, a coalition of scientists, educationists, human rights activists, civil society organizations and so on, constituted in 2000 in response to nuclear weaponisation by India and Pakistan, calls for total nuclear disarmament in India as well as in the rest of the world. The CNDP does not accept the argument for nuclear energy put forward by atomic scientists as well as decision makers. While the option for nuclear energy is very expensive, the Indian government has restored faith in the DAE by allocating huge investment by ignoring various social issues like education, health etc.

President of India Abdul Kalam
President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (2nd from left),
visiting an IITF exhibit in New Delhi in 2003.

Developing nuclear energy will be a slow, expensive and uncertain challenge at best. To increase the potential of nuclear energy, India has to look into outside help. Foreign involvement in nuclear power plant construction will diminish India’s ambition of energy independence if India takes the path of nuclear.

The real solution to India’s energy needs can come only when opting for energy sources that have low-impacts on the environment, low costs, and are easily available. Renewable energy has the potential to fulfill these critera. Renewable energy has the potential to bring true energy independence to India.

About the Author: Avilash Roul has been writing, advocating, researching, and creating knowledge on Environment and Development in various English Daily media since 2000. He has worked with Down To Earth (fortnightly magazine published in New Delhi, India) for the last three years. He has also contributed a Sunday column in New India Express on the environment and development. Right now Mr. Roul is working as an Assistant Coordinator for the Bank Information Center (, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization that advocates for the protection of rights, participation, transparency, and public accountability in the governance and operations of the World Bank, regional development banks, and the International Monetary Fund.

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