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In conversation with Chairman of the Atomic Energy Comission

Saurav Jha @SJha1618

Updated: June 30, 2014, 6:33 PM IST
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Narendra Modi's government has indicated a renewed push in the area of civil nuclear energy, which is a key component of India's strategy to enhance energy access as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover given the new government's desire to operationalize India's various bilateral civil nuclear agreements it would be worthwhile to get a clearer perspective on how safety, liability and nuclear commerce related issues stack up in India today. And with the stage set for India's potential entry into the Nuclear Supplier's Group besides other key international agreements, which in turn will make it easier to register significant growth in Indian nuclear exports in the days ahead. Geek at Large caught up a while ago with the Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, Dr RK Sinha to discuss these issues. Dr Sinha is of course also one of the chief architects of India's thorium based programmes.

Do you think AERB's current charter is enough to lend it credibility?

AERB is much more independent than one would think they are. There is enough material online, at the AERB website, to verify that AERB is quite strict and stringent as a regulator.

To be an effective regulator one has to have prior experience in R&D, safety research, or operations and maintenance in nuclear related areas. So, naturally AERB's staff over the years has been drawn from people with such experience in one of the units of the Department of Atomic Energy.

There is an article in the Convention on Nuclear Safety that stipulates that the function of the regulator should be effectively separated from the bodies involved in promotion of nuclear energy. Now, we must remember that regulators in all countries were de-facto but not de-jure independent to begin with. For instance, France established a de-jure independent regulator only in 2006, even when most of its nuclear power plants were established two to three decades back. In that direction, in India too, we have now placed our Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill for approval by Parliament.

Turning to Indian imports, do you think power from imported reactors will be supplied at less than four rupees a unit? Will indigenisation of components help in this regard?

The four rupee figure may not be possible to achieve anymore, but I believe these reactors will still be quite competitive. At the end of the day, these things fall in the realm of negotiations.

A number of factors may contribute to keep rates competitive, including the break-up of Indian and foreign scope of supply, funds flow schedule, and terms of credit.

Of course, indigenous components should play a role in bringing capital costs down. The first pair of reactors will have a certain level of indigenisation with that level increasing with every subsequent pair. Tie-ups to further the cause of indigenisation of imported designs are happening already.

But the greatest discord stems once liability has to be assigned. A number of foreign suppliers have expressed their reservations about India's liability law. Do you think the liability law as it currently stands needs to be amended?

The existing liability law clearly aims to bring the relief to the actions of a nuclear incident very quickly under a no-fault liability regime in which the operator provides compensation up to a part. Whether it brings suppliers into the ambit of unlimited liability is a point of concern raised by both - Indian and foreign suppliers. At the moment, we have constituted a team of experts to do a probabilistic safety assessment (PSA) of reactors with a view to envisaging potential fault pathways. This will yield a fault-tree analysis document that we shall put up for all suppliers to see and make an informed assessment on the extent of their liability (if at all) in the event of a nuclear incidence.

This document will bring transparency to the interpretation of the liability law and underlines the fact that India's liability law has a fault regime based framework for suppliers. The right of recourse does not extend 'no fault liability' onto a supplier.

Who is compiling this document?

We have a team of PSA experts from NPCIL, BARC and IGCAR who are working on drafting this document. And we have a peer review team from BARC who come from a different section.

Finally, how would you respond to recent allegations of alleged thorium bearing monazite exports?

Our beach sand minerals policy was revised in 1998. It was felt that our resource to exploitation ratio for beach sand minerals was very high, and therefore, companies other than PSUs were also allowed into beach sand mining for minerals such as ilmenite, zircon etc., but not for thorium-bearing monazite, which continues to be a 'prescribed substance' under the Atomic Energy Act. Monazite can only be exported by any entity under a license from DAE and till date no such license has been issued to any private entity. So, any monazite exports by private entities, if at all these have taken place, are basically illegal. Only IREL is permitted to export monazite.

Now, since all beach sand minerals occur together, companies handling these minerals have to nevertheless get a license from AERB, where-by they are bound by radiation protection rules to dispose-off monazite tailings within their mining lease and in accordance with stipulated rules. Inspectors from AERB survey these areas to ensure that licensing conditions are met.

In any case, monazite is radioactive and ports across the world have radiation detectors and would have noticed such movement had they been significant enough. As an aside, we are also installing radiation detectors supplied by ECIL at our ports. That will supplement several other measures that have been taken up for implementation, to guard against any illegal mining or export of monazite.

Do you foresee Indian reactor exports in the near future?

Well, our reactors in the 220 MWe and 700 MWe category would fit the bill for exports. These are characterised as small and medium sized reactors and countries with modest grids would be interested in them.

Follow Saurav Jha on twitter @SJha1618
First Published: June 30, 2014, 6:33 PM IST

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