India: Slow Pace of Indigenous Newbuilds Irks Lawmakers

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India's 700 megawatt pressurized heavy-water reactor, dubbed the "IPHWR," is intended to be the workhorse of the Indian nuclear power program. New Delhi plans to bring 16 of the indigenous reactors on line by 2031, producing some 11.2 gigawatts. But while serious procurement has already been launched for the long-lead items needed for a "fleet mode" project to build 10 IPHWRs nearly simultaneously, there are major questions about the rollout of both the reactors already under construction and the commissioning of the first-of-a-kind reactor, which is India's largest indigenous design.

Parliament in particular is cognizant of the distance between nuclear planners' promises and the actual performance of the newbuild program. India is the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, and following a massive power crisis during India's summer season from April through July, New Delhi has gone relatively quiet on nuclear power while doubling down on domestic coal mining — and, to be fair, building out solar and wind farms. V. Vijayasai Reddy, a lawmaker in the Rajya Sabha, asked the government this month why, given its commitment to building out non-fossil fuel generation capacity of 500 GW by 2030, India's ambitious nuclear newbuilds are moving at a "snail's pace"? Separately MP Shashi Tharoor last week expressed concern at these delays, and asked if there are any design flaws or safety issues that have been identified with IPHWR.

Construction delays aren't just being experienced at the indigenous IPHWRs, but also at the four VVER-1000s being supplied by Russia's Rosatom at Kudankulam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Jitendra Singh, the minister responsible for Atomic Energy, told Reddy that while work on Indian newbuilds is "in full swing," there have been delays due to "factors like delay in supply of critical equipment by domestic industries, financial crunch, cash flow problems of contractors, shortage of skilled contractor manpower, restrictions during [the] Covid-19 pandemic, implementation of recommended design changes following the Fukushima incident etc." The "ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict" also impacted the four Kudankulam newbuilds.

But no matter the broader context, it's impossible to deny the IPHWR's teething issues. When Unit 3 of the Kakrapar nuclear power plant in the western state of Gujarat was synchronized to the grid on Jan. 10, 2021, it was touted as a milestone for India's nuclear program, and ramp up to full commercial operation was anticipated by Mar. 31, 2021. But to date that milestone hasn't been achieved, and the commissioning of the first-of-a-kind IPWHR looks just as troubled as its construction, which started in 2010 and lasted through to first criticality on Jul. 22, 2020.

Modifications, But 'No Design Flaws'

NPCIL and AERB did not reply Energy Intelligence questions. But the government must respond to parliamentary questions, and "there are no design flaws or safety issues in the design" of the IPHWR, Singh argued in his response to Tharoor. And yet Singh acknowledged that several modifications are under way at Kakrapar-3 following the observation of elevated temperatures in "certain areas of the reactor building" during the ramp-up process.

A Jun. 1 filing from state-owned Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd. (NPCIL) with the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission was more revealing: Kakrapar-3 has been turned off since Apr. 28, 2021 as modifications have been made to the pump room ventilation system. "These modifications, which are complex in nature, are being implemented after undergoing several stages of detailed review and require clearance from the regulatory body for implementation," read the filing, which noted that the reactor can only be restarted after the modifications are implemented.

Singh claims Kakrapar-3 is now expected to restart and ramp up to commercial operations by December, but this is dependent on obtaining "stage-wise regulatory clearances" from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

Meanwhile Singh revealed that Kakrapar-4, which the government claimed as recently as Mar. 3 was to start operations this year, is just 94% complete. In a May 27 filing of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission, NPCIL said that "in line with" Unit 3, "major modification works on civil structural beams and ventilation systems of reactor building need to be carried out," and these modifications must be completed before starting testing of the primary heat transport system. Kakrapar-4 first began drawing electricity from the grid to help with start-up operations in April 2021, and thanks to delays from the reactor modifications and Covid-19, the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission has allowed it to continue to draw that power through July 2023.

Snail’s Progress On Site

The delays related to Covid-19 are very real, of course: there was a complete pause on all reactors under construction from Mar. 24, 2020 through May 24, 2020, barring "only essential activities including preservation," the Department of Atomic Energy said in its most recent annual report. This led to restrictions on "inter-state movement of equipment and personnel, etc. and effected the contractor and vendor support for ongoing activities at site," NPCIL claimed in its filings to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission.

NPCIL has also been pointed to Covid-19 restrictions impacting both employees and contractors. The IPHWR needs "stringent quality assurance on the design, selection, qualification, operation and maintenance of critical equipment like reactor components, steam generators and pressurizer," NPCIL said in another filing. "Their manufacturing and pre-service inspection have added to the delay in supply of these equipment. There are limited qualified vendors in India for making nuclear-grade reactor equipment and components."

That may help explain at least some of the other reactors in or near construction. Rajasthan-7, the first of two twin IPHWRs at Rawatbhata in the western state of Rajasthan, was to be synchronized with the grid this year, but is just 95% physically complete. Rajasthan-8 is only 81% physically complete. And the first pour of nuclear-safety concrete for Gorakhpur-1, the first of two IPHWRs in the northern state of Haryana was to happen in 2019, hasn't happened yet.

But things may be moving faster, at least in the supply chain. In its latest annual report, privately held construction giant Larsen & Toubro noted that it delivered the four 700 MW steam generators for Gorakhpur-1 and -2 some 6-12 months ahead of the contractual delivery date, despite Covid-19. It also dispatched the pair of end-shields for the reactors some three months ahead of schedule. But Larsen & Toubro separately noted that its order book for the fiscal year ending Mar. 31 was down 9.8% year on year, mainly due to the deferral of orders in the nuclear equipment system business and fertilizer and petrochemical business.

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