Glimpse of Nuclear Power Sector in India

This article discusses the various economic aspects and status of nuclear power generation and transmission in context with Indian Power Sector. Details of various nuclear power plants along with Nuclear Research centers are included. Data from various sources has been collected and compiled in order to provide readers with correct information regarding the status of nuclear power generation in India... - Dr Anuradha Tomar, Shikhar Agrawal,  Ayush Mittal

In 1934, an Italian scientist named Fermi and his colleagues bombarded uranium with slow moving neutrons and he realized that the nucleus of uranium (235) would split down the middle in two very similar fragments and will produce much higher radioactivity than any other element. This process was to be known as nuclear fission and was the starting of an era of nuclear power/energy.Uranium is a silvery white chemical element having atomic number 92. It has numerous physical, chemical and atomic properties and as energy production and weapons design. But, its primary use is as a source of energy in nuclear reactors.

Global carbon emissions have been rising sharply since the end of 20th century, and countries have adopted various policies and switched over to alternate source of energy to minimize/reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in different sectors. India’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) has outlined goals to reduce the carbon emissions intensity of its economy by 33-35 percent by 2030 as well as increase the clean energy capacity to 40% of the total installed capacity in the same period. The most important source of energy for India in the coming decades is nuclear power, given its huge potential growth, emission-free nature and consistent nature of production.

India has a streamlined nuclear power program and expects to have 20,000 MW nuclear capacities on line by 2020. It aims to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050. Since India is outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty due to its weapons program, it had been largely excluded for 34 years from trade in nuclear plant or materials, which has hindered its development of civil nuclear energy until 2009. India’s vision is to become a world leader in nuclear technology due to its expertise in fast reactors and thorium fuel cycle.

Nuclear Reactors

Nuclear Reactor is an engineered design civil construction that produces and controls the release of energy from splitting the atoms of certain elements. The several components common to most type of reactors are – fuel, moderator, control rods, coolant, pressure vessels/and tubes, steam generator, containment. The reactors operational in commercial field include – Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR), Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR & Magnox), Light water Graphite Reactor (RBMK & EGP) and Fast Neutron Reactor (FBR).

According to NPCIL report, there are 21 Nuclear Reactors in operation in seven nuclear power plants with a total capacity of 5,780 MW as on January 2017. Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS), Maharashtra is oldest and the largest nuclear power station in India; having four Nuclear Reactors with a capacity of 1400 MW and is in commercial operation since October 28, 1969. But, Kundakulam Atomic Power Project overtook TAPS, Maharashtra since March 2017, with a capacity of 2000 MWe only with two Nuclear Reactors. Also, according to NPCIL report, three Nuclear Reactor Projects are under construction out of which one Kudankulam Atomic Project, Tamil Nadu is under operation since March 2017.

Production and Transmission

Nuclear power plants have many features in common with traditional electrical power facilities; the main difference is that they produce energy with radioactive materials instead of convectional fuels. The same commercial power grid carries electricity from nuclear and fossil-fuel plants as well as renewable sources. A nuclear reactor produces large amounts of heat from the controlled radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and plutonium. The nuclei of these heavy elements are unstable; they emit radiation in the form of neutrons, alpha and beta particles and gamma rays, becoming more stable in the process. As they produce radiation, they also become very hot. In a nuclear reactor, the heat is used as a substitute for the burning of coal or natural gas. Both non-renewable resources (fossil fuels) and nuclear power plants use heat to boil water and make steam. Pipes carry high pressure from the nuclear reactor to a steam-powered turbine. The steam propels the turbine’s blades, causing the turbine shaft to spin rapidly, turning a generator that produces electricity. The steam condenses into water, which is recycled back to the reactor to become steam again.

According to the annual report 2015-16 by the Department of Atomic Energy, India, during the calendar year 2015, NPCIL recorded highest ever generation of 38,364 Million Units (MUs), which was about 3% higher than the generation of 37,146 MUs in the last calendar year 2014.Also, as mentioned in the press release (Dated 25-FEB-2015) by the Department of Atomic Energy, India, Nuclear power generation increased from 14,927 MUs of electricity in 2008-09 to 35333 MUs in 2013-14 and the capacity utilization has also improved from about 50% in 2008-09 to 83% in 2013-14.

Economic Times published a news article, quoting ‘India has drawn up an ambitious plan to reach a nuclear power capacity of 63,000MW in 2032 by setting up of 16 Indigenous Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR), including 10 based on reprocessed URANIUM, NPCIL Official said (08-OCT-2010). NPCIL Chairman and Managing Director, S K Jain, quoted –“Out of total target of 63,000 MW, about 40,000 MW will be generated through Light Water Reactors with international cooperation.” He also said India would export 220MW, 540MW and 700 MW PHWRs by 2032.’ dated 11-OCT-2010.

On the footprints of the targeted Nuclear Power Capacity of 63,000 MW, Lok Sabha was informed about the Government ambitious plan to setup nuclear plants in Bihar, Haryana and Punjab and aims to increase the capacity by three times in ten years. Also, during Question Hour in Lok Sabha, Union Minister Jitendar Singh quoted – ‘If it is 4,780 MW on today, the same would go up to 13,480 MW by 2026’ and the same was reported by The Times of India on 2 March 2017.

Source: IAEA, Power Reactor Information Report (PRIS)

Advantages of Nuclear Power

  • Energy Density: Bio-fuel or fuel from plants is one oft-cited source of renewable energy. When compared with firewood and bio-fuel, nuclear fuel has a much greater energy density, meaning the amount of energy getting from a unit mass of fuel is much greater and one needs to produce and transport much smaller quantity to get the same amount of power.
    • Emissions: Nuclear power is emission free as there are no atmospheric pollutants and no greenhouse gases emitted through the operation of a nuclear power plant. Mining and transportation of nuclear fuel do have associated emissions, but the high energy density of nuclear fuel minimizes this impact.
    • Land Use: All types of renewable energy take up vast areas of land. A solar power plant requires large arrays of panels or collectors spread across a wide area to capture as much sunlight as possible. Producing bio-fuels requires growing dedicated fuel crops on land that might otherwise have been used for agriculture. Similarly, hydroelectric dams create large lakes that flood what was previously dry land, and wind farms take up a large space for wind turbines. But, Nuclear power takes up a much smaller amount of land in comparison to the amount of power it generates, reducing the amount of habitat destruction associated with its construction.
    • Reliability: Renewable energy is at the mercy of the weather. A solar power plant is going to be most efficient on days when the sun is shining brightly; wind farm works best when the wind means a drop in electricity generation. But, nuclear power continues to function just fine regardless of the weather.

Nuclear Energy Companies

  • Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL)
    Expecting the nuclear deal with US to go through, India’s largest defence electronics company Bharat Electronic Ltd (BEL) is looking at tapping the lucrative business potential in the atomic energy sector.
    • Larsen & Toubro
    Global nuclear power companies are moving in fast into India. Large power majors with a strong presence in nuclear energy such as General Electric, Westinghouse and Areva are in negotiations with Larsen & Toubro (L&T) for a possible joint venture in nuclear power equipment and nuclear power generation.

Nuclear Power Research Centres

  • Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research
    IGCAR was established in the year 1971, under the Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India. The centre is engaged in broad based multidisciplinary programme of scientific research and advanced engineering directed towards the development of “Fast Breeder Reactor technology”. Fast Breeder Test Reactor is based on unique mixed Plutonium Uranium Carbide fuel, first of its kind in the world and KAMINI Reactor, the only operating reactor in the world using U233 fuel are successfully operated. The design of 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor is completed and the construction is in progress.
    • Baba Atomic Research Centre
    BARC provides a broad spectrum of scientific and technological activities extending from basic laboratory bench scale research to scale up plant level operations and its functional domain covers all walks of science and technology – stretching from classical school of thoughts to the emerging novel fields of interest. The core mandate of this institution is to provide research and development support required to sustain one of the major peaceful applications of nuclear energy viz. power generation. This includes conceptualization of the programme, finalisation of the design of the reactor and the peripheral components, preparation of computer generated working models and their evaluation studies under simulated reactor running conditions, identification, and selection and testing of materials and components for their risk analysis under extreme conditions of reactor operating environments, development and testing of new reactor fuel materials etc.
    • The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
    The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research is an autonomous institute under the umbrella of the Department of Atomic Energy of the Government of India. TIFR does basic research in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics and computer science. They have campuses in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore and research facilities in various other places in India.

Rajasthan Atomic Power Station

Nuclear waste Disposal

Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology which takes full responsibility for all its wastes and fully costs this into the product. The amount of radioactive wastes is very small relative to wastes produced by fossil fuel electricity generation. Used nuclear fuel may be treated as a resource or simply as a waste. It is neither particularly hazardous, nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial wastes. Safe methods for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste are technically proven; the international consensus is that this should be geological disposal.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant

Economic Aspects


The only accurate measure of economic competitiveness is the cost of electricity produced by a particular project compared to alternative sources of electricity and to the market price of electricity when plant starts commercial operation. Economics of nuclear power involves consideration of various parameters/aspects such as- capital costs, plant operating costs, external cost to society and environmental degradation cost. Assessing the relative costs of new generating plants utilising different technologies is a complex matter and designing and construction of the reactors/plants are expensive but relatively cheaper to run. Nuclear energy/power is an economic source of electricity generation, combining the advantages, such as – security, reliability, virtually zero greenhouse gas emissions and cost competitiveness. Existing plants function well with a high degree of predictability with a low risk of significant operating cost inflation.The International Energy Agency (IEA) sees the global demand for electricity growing at 1.9% per year in the period to 2040.

Apart from considerations of cost of electricity and the perspective of an investor/operator, there are studies on the economics of particular generating plants in their local context. Some of the published reports are – Economic Impacts of Thr R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant (2015), Economic Impacts of The Indian Point Energy Center (June 2015) and Brattle Group Report (September 2015).


After studying various survey reports, in 2004 Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Govt of India estimated that India would need 8 trillion kWh of electricity per year by 2050. The DAE has made some very ambitious projections for increasing the nuclear energy but was unable to meet the targets even over the very short run due to non-standard reactors. These reactors have the advantage that they can work with naturally occurring uranium without the need for enrichment. While this saves some expense, these reactors use heavy-water, which is expensive.

Moreover, the economics of nuclear power in India is particularly complicated by two factors. First, it is hard to obtain an accurate estimate of the subsidies that go into various aspects of nuclear power, including heavy-water production. Second, the DAE uses a so-called “closed cycle,” where the spent fuel is reprocessed. This reprocessing is very expensive, but is not included in the official estimation of the cost of power. The reasoning behind this is that the reprocessed fuel will eventually be useful in the second stage of the nuclear programme; since this second stage has not yet become operational, this is rather specious. It is sometimes argued that nuclear power is cost-competitive with coal. Under reasonable assumptions for the subsidy that goes into heavy-water production, nuclear power is not cost-competitive with coal even for (real) discount rates as low as 3 per cent. This conclusion holds even if the costs involved in reprocessing are completely neglected.

Specific Factors in Indian Context

The first factor has to do with the poor uranium resources of the country. Uranium deposits in India are not only rare, but they are of poor quality. The report of the Kirit Parikh- led expert committee on energy policy, pointed out that “India is poorly endowed with Uranium. Available Uranium supply can fuel only 10,000 MW of the Pressurised Heavy-Water Reactors (PHWR). Further, India is extracting Uranium from extremely low grade ores (as low as 0.1% Uranium) compared to ores with up to 12-14% Uranium in certain resources abroad. This makes Indian nuclear fuel 2–3 times costlier than international supplies”. It is evident then that a large nuclear programme can only be sustained on the basis of imported fuel. Of course, this makes nuclear energy more expensive. However, more seriously, importing fuel will make India dependent on imperialist countries for fuel supplies.”

The second important issue in India is the lack of a strong regulatory framework. In 1948, Bhabha wrote to Nehru stating that “the development of atomic energy should be entrusted to a very small and high-powered body, composed of say three people with executive power, and answerable directly to the Prime Minister without any intervening link. This body may be referred to as the Atomic Energy Commission”. The AEC was set up in 1954 and 55 years later; this small opaque clique of bureaucrats continues to oversee all aspects of atomic energy in the country but, for decades, the atomic energy establishment did not even see the need to have an independent regulatory body. The DAE was in charge of both the construction and regulation of nuclear power plants. It was only after the serious nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, US) in 1979 that the DAE started the process of setting up a separate Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). However, the AERB, which was set up in 1983 with the mission of ensuring the safety of atomic energy, reports directly to the AEC, which is chaired by the head of the DAE. In 1995, the AERB, under a proactive chairperson, A Gopalakrishnan, compiled a report citing 130 safety issues in Indian nuclear installations, with about 95 being top priority. It is unclear what, if any, action was taken on the AERB Report.

If you want to share thoughts or feedback then please leave a comment below.