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'30,000 Mw of nuclear power by 2020 is a realistic target'

Q&A/ S K Jain

Vandana Gombar Ayyagary & Sumana Guha Ray  |  New Delhi/ Mumbai 

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), which accounts for about 3 per cent (4,120 Mw) of the country's power generation capacity, is the only company authorised to build nuclear power plants in the country, besides
SK Jain, who heads NPCIL and Bhavini, tells Vandana Gombar Ayyagary and Sumana Guha Ray about how NPCIL is best placed to take India's nuclear power ambitions forward.
What is the state of readiness at NPCIL for realising the objectives of the India-US nuclear pact?
We have been having informal meetings with the vendors (GE, Areva, Westinghouse). Once the deal is through, as a power utility, we can get marching orders to deal with foreign companies and figure out the modalities of purchase (on a negotiated basis or through competitive bidding).
We are also in the process of identifying 3-4 coastal sites to set up imported reactors. The report on the sites will be submitted in June this year.
What is the capacity addition you are looking at?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced in August last year that it would be possible to get 40,000 Mw of power through the nuclear route in 10 years.
It is too tough a target to achieve, not because we do not have the capability, but because the supply chain would be a constraint. A realistic target would be around 30,000 Mw by 2020.
How would these plants be funded?
Funding projects would not be a problem as NPCIL is currently sitting on cash reserve of Rs 10,000-11,000 crore. We are earning four-figure net profit (Rs 1,571 crore for the year ended March 2007) and we are confident we will continue this way till 2020.
This means another Rs 10,000 crore. By mobilising funds from the financial institutions, we have an investment capability of over Rs 60,000 crore. So, we won't be needing any funding even from the government of India.
Would NPCIL be interested in partnering companies like NTPC which also have nuclear power ambitions?
NPCIL has enough money. And if we are talking about expertise, we have built that over 35 years. We are able to put up and operate plants that would meet any international benchmark.
Currently, only we handle nuclear fuel, which we get on a lease basis from the Department of Atomic Energy, of which we are a part. This might not be possible with other players.
So some rules, guidelines and legislation would have to be made before other players can be allowed onto the playing field. The size of the programme is such that NPCIL alone can handle it.
So, you are saying the case for NTPC is weak?
I am not saying the case for NTPC is weak, just saying this is not the right time for them to enter the nuclear power market.
If the case is such for NTPC, for private players like Tata Power and Reliance, there seems to be no hope right now?
NTPC being a government undertaking can approach the government. The others can't even seek approval at present. There was some talk about an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act to allow private companies to set up nuclear power plants.
It takes time for an Act to get amended. It takes around two years for the draft Bill to be prepared. Then there are other procedures. Currently there are 157 Acts waiting to be cleared by Parliament.
NPCIL has the funding. It has the expertise. Where are the challenges for the company?
Attrition is a serious problem. As we are confined to the government pay structure, the pay and the perks are poor. We can no longer attract talent from IITs or even the regional engineering colleges.
We have two resignations and three retirements on an average per week (staff strength is about 13,000). The nuclear renaissance all over the world will only add to the exodus.
Is NPCIL eligible to be a 'Navratna' company? Would that give you some flexibility on wages?
If NPCIL was with the Bureau of Public Enterprises, we would have been eligible for Navratna status. But NPCIL and Bhavini are under the Department of Atomic Energy.
India is looking at the nuclear option to get power, but there are easier and environment-friendly options like 'green coal'.
It is all in theory. Do you know that in no time at all, we will be the second largest importer of coal in the world after China? This is because 200 billion tonnes of our reserves are below cities, forests and riverbeds.
Only 80 billion tonnes are mannable. Of this, 60 per cent can actually be recovered. And of this 50 billion tonnes, 40 per cent is ash content. And the consumption today is 450 million tonnes.
And for environmental reasons, the use of coal might have to be banned after 10 years, what with all the glaciers melting and the water levels rising.
What would be the best option for clean green energy in India?
It would be hydel, because they are multipurpose plants. They not only generate electricity but also help in irrigation and flood-control and in providing drinking water.
On a long-term basis, the solution would be use of thorium as fuel, of which we have large reserves. If our path in that direction is successful, we can become a world leader as the only other country in the world with a large reserve of thorium is Brazil. Between the two nations, we have almost 80 per cent of the world's thorium reserves.
Okay, what about gas?
Where is the gas? Plants are not working because of the non-availability of gas. The Iraq pipeline is not happening. And gas is required for many other purposes like production of fertilisers.
Even wind is not so safe because windmills scare away birds which are needed to maintain ecosystem of a place.
The founder members of the Green Movement, Patrick Moore and James Lovelock, who opposed nuclear power generation, now feel that time has come for us to choose between melting glaciers or nuclear wastes that have to be stored for a long time.