Published online 4 January 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.0

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India's nuclear future

Srikumar Banerjee, head of India's Atomic Energy Commission, outlines plans for the country's energy supply.

BanerjeeSrikumar Banerjee (left) takes over from the outgoing head of India's Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar.AEC/DAE

With India's energy needs growing rapidly, the country is planning a major expansion of its nuclear-power capacity.

To do so, it will need to greatly increase international collaboration, including negotiating contracts for the purchase of reactor technology and nuclear fuel. But critics say that such deals would weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international agreement that aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, which India has not signed.

Srikumar Banerjee took over as head of the country's Atomic Energy Commission and the government's Department of Atomic Energy on 30 November. He also continues to lead the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which focuses on military applications.

Banerjee speaks to Nature about India's nuclear ambitions, and the balance between its civilian and military programmes.

How do you plan to increase India's nuclear-power capacity?

Presently we generate 4.7 gigawatts of nuclear power from 18 reactors — about 3% of the total electricity generation in India. We would like to increase that to 60 gigawatts by about 2035, which will be roughly 10% of expected total installed capacity.

“We have always emphasized that we should have the right to reprocess imported nuclear fuel to separate plutonium.”

Srikumar Banerjee
Atomic Energy Commission

India's established reserve of uranium will allow us to raise our installed capacity only to 10 gigawatts. We are intensifying our efforts to search for uranium in the country, but that takes time. But now that the Nuclear Suppliers Group [the international group that oversees nuclear exports] has relaxed its guidelines, we can access international markets.

Agreements with the United States, France and Russia on civilian nuclear cooperation have been signed. Negotiations between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India and companies in France and Russia are under way for finalizing the import of nuclear reactors, and we have already placed a purchase order for uranium with Kazakhstan.

What reactors will you build, and where will they be located?

We will add eight to ten 700-megawatt pressurized heavy-water reactors, several fast-breeder reactors and an advanced heavy-water reactor, all of indigenous design. Concurrently, we will set up light-water reactors in technical cooperation with foreign vendors. These imported reactors, each with a capacity of 1,000–1,650 megawatts, will be set up on energy parks at coastal sites including Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

We are also in the process of identifying stable underground geological sites for long-term storage of nuclear waste.

India has said it will reprocess imported nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, which can be used to build weapons. Has this made it difficult to strike deals with international partners?

India has committed to adopting the closed fuel cycle option, in which the plutonium recovered from spent fuel is utilized for energy production using fast-breeder reactors.

We have always emphasized that we should have the right to reprocess imported nuclear fuel to separate plutonium, under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, of course. This provision is already available in the Indo–US deal.

India has relatively little uranium, but it owns about a quarter of the world's thorium deposits. What are your plans to develop reactors fuelled by thorium?

Large-scale utilization of thorium for power generation can start only when we have accumulated enough uranium-233 [produced when neutrons collide with thorium].

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To gain sufficient experience with the thorium fuel cycle, we are also planning to set up an advanced heavy-water reactor, in which nearly two-thirds of the energy output will come from fission of uranium-233.

Is India's civilian nuclear programme completely separate from its weapons programme?

Indian strategic programme is 100% indigenous and has no relation whatsoever to the proposed international civilian nuclear cooperation. We do not see any difficulty in continuing our strategic programme without any hindrance to the civilian power-generation programme. 

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