'India's indigenous nuclear power programme is laudable'

'India's indigenous nuclear power programme is laudable'

The pensive but plain-speaking nuclear scientist from Russia, known for his work in design of fusion reactors, Sokolov, had headed the department of nuclear science and technology of the ministry of atomic energy of the Russian Federation until he moved over to the IAEA seven years ago. He spoke to M R Venkatesh of Deccan Herald on a range of issues at Mamallapuram, taking some time off from the second international conference on ‘Asian Nuclear Prospects-2010.’ Excerpts:

Why is an Asian resurgence in nuclear power being hyped these days?
It stems from the general economic growth in the countries of Asia, ranging from 8 to 10 per cent. Their population is huge, including that of China, and you will need lot more energy for your socio-economic development. Using conventional fuels for power generation have limitations, more so due to climate change impact problems. Hydro, thermal and wind power is limited, while solar power is still expensive. India and China also want to limit their carbon emissions, and so the potential solution is nuclear power. Countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan are also looking at having a nuclear power programme. Recently, even Sri Lanka, at the IAEA general conference in September, showed interest in exploring the nuclear power option.

When Light Water Reactors (LWR) is the major reactor type in vogue worldwide now, how do you see the future of Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR)?
When we speak about nuclear power, it has to be in the context of sustainable development. Water-cooled nuclear reactors, whether LWRs or Heavy Water Reactors (HWR), typically use only up to 3 per cent of the energy available in uranium. But fast reactors can use the full energy from the uranium. The extraction of energy could even go up 60 times. For instance, India now has natural uranium capacity to install up to 10 giga watts (GW) of nuclear power. If India uses all the available uranium efficiently, it can yield 600 GW, twice the expected nuclear power installed capacity of 300 GW by the year 2050. So the FBRs are being revived.

How does IAEA assess India ’s nuclear programme including its FBR?
India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India also does not want to put its fast reactors programme under IAEA safeguards. So, our cooperation in the FBR programme is very limited. So we are only discussing some safety issues. The IAEA does not support technology transfer for this and we have a limited mandate to assess the FBR programme. India is not willing to open up everything in this area. This is your national choice. We cannot force you. But after the agreement signed last year, India decided to put a large number of its PHWRs and the newly being built LWRs under safeguards as light water is supplied by foreign vendors. It is also part of the conditions of Russia, which is now helping India to put up two 1000 MW each LWRs at Koodangulam in Tamil Nadu. Besides Tarapur-I and II units are under IAEA safeguards. You have a lot of achievements in your fast reactor technology including developing the fuel and closing the fuel cycle. We note a lot of these achievements in India’s indigenous nuclear power programme. In principle, it looks your safety system is solid. Yet, there is scope for improvement.

China supplying nuclear reactors to Pakistan has raised concerns for India in the backdrop of the A Q Khan network in the past. How can IAEA ensure that such technology transfers are not used for any illegal purposes?
It is difficult for me to answer this question. I do not know the details of the China-Pakistan agreement. India’s suspicion in this regard is not enough if Pakistan does not provide access.

Has the increasing nuclear commerce with the liberalisation in recent years diluted IAEA’s global watchdog role?
No, no. I think it is quite the opposite. The IAEA’s mandate is to guarantee non-proliferation, which has to be sustainable. This is our mandate to verify peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Countries which are supplying these technologies, as in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), have established some rules. The supply of these technologies has to be under IAEA safeguards. So, the importance of our role continues to be the same. The agency has to ensure that nuclear technology is used peacefully.

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