Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 22 September 2023

Scaling down in nuclear power and space

Source: By Anil Sasi: The Indian Express

Across two key strategic sectors – nuclear generation and space technology – where participation from entities outside of the government has been limited so far, an upscaling of private sector interest is being attempted by, ironically, a scaling down of size.

In the civil nuclear sector, the Indian government is pushing Small Modular Reactors or SMR as a technology of promise that can help in industrial decarbonisation, including a determined hard sell of the country’s ability to take a leadership role in the dissemination of this technology.

Likewise, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) resolve to transfer its Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) to the private sector, after having conducted two development flights of the rocket, aims clearly at enabling private players to offer on-demand services to put satellites weighing up to 500 kg into a low-earth orbit as the government seeks more investment in the booming space market. India is aiming to increase its share of the global satellite launch market fivefold over the next decade and the SSLV is seen as the government-led launchpad for fostering private innovation.

But it is the small reactors where India is pushing for a global leadership slot, both as a way of fulfilling its commitment to clean energy transition, and bundling SMRs as a technology-led foreign policy pitch at the G20 meet. According to government officials, detailed technical discussions are currently underway in policy circles to plan a roadmap for studying the feasibility and effectiveness of the deployment of such reactors.

The Center is also exploring the options of collaborating with other countries and taking up indigenous development of SMRs. “The future course of action will be finalised on the basis of the decision of the Government within the overall remit of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, and the possibility of allowing participation of private sector and start-ups is also being looked at,” an official said.

So, even though India’s civil nuclear programme has progressively upscaled its reactor size, from the modest 220MWe reactors to 700MWe PHWRs (pressurised heavy water reactors), New Delhi does maintain an edge in producing and operating small-sized reactors that are being seen as a viable alternative for countries with mid-sized grids or for decentralised grid operations.

What changes now is that this push for these small modular reactors, which has been on the policy agenda for well over a decade but has not translated into a viable commercial option, is now likely to turn mainstream and, more importantly, could have the backing of countries such as the US at the G20, especially on the financing aspect and dissemination of the technology.

SMRs are essentially advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of 30MWe to 300 MWe (megawatt electrical) per unit, which is about a third of the generating capacity of most traditional nuclear power reactors and that can produce a large amount of low-carbon electricity. These impact grid flexibility along with baseload power, especially given the imperative of inducting renewables into the grid.

Importantly, New Delhi’s push comes at a time when two countries that have taken a lead in SMRs – Russia and China – are finding it difficult to do business.

As of now, there are two SMR projects that have reached at operational stage globally: an SMR named Akademik Lomonosov floating power unit in Russia that has two modules of 35 MWe and started commercial operation in May 2020, and an HTR-PM demonstration SMR in China that was grid-connected in December 2021. Argentina is another country that has some experience in working on SMR prototype designs. India is attempting to pitch itself as an alternative to Russia and China in this niche field.

In space technology, the success of Chandrayaan-3 is widely expected to give a boost to India’s efforts to spur private investment in space ventures. The newly created space regulatory body, the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), opened the bidding process on the SSLV program in July by enabling qualified companies to evince interest.

In the due course, the SSLV will be the first domestic rocket to be fully privatised, enabling the winning bidder or consortium to take over the entire program, as against a far more circumscribed outlook for the manufacturing of ISRO’s workhorse PSLV rockets.