India-US N-deal under threat
It is now finally official. The murmurs in the global nuclear industry were getting louder in the recent years about the malpractices of Japanese major, Toshiba, which owns the American company, Westinghouse. Now Toshiba has decided to withdraw from the construction of nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom and India, and this decision poses serious uncertainty over the future of India's ambitious nuclear power programme with US collaboration.
As per the agreement between India and the US signed during the visit of the former US President Barack Obama in 2016 to India, Westinghouse is scheduled to construct six AP 1000 nuclear power plants in India, possibly in Andhra Pradesh. Indian and global nuclear experts protested at that time itself about the competence of Westinghouse and the technology of the AP 1000 plants of the American company. The UPA government of Dr Manmohan Singh was so euphoric about an agreement with the American company that they did not check up the latest performance of Westinghouse's AP1000 plants and went for the deal.
Now, the Modi government is in a precarious situation. Following Toshiba's withdrawal, Westinghouse will be in no position to carry out the gigantic task of constructing nuclear power plants in India. The original understanding of the building of the nuclear power plants with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India has lost its relevance as Westinghouse has to operate now in a much narrower field of nuclear energy reactors and services rather than civil engineering for the nuclear power plants and their complete construction. If Westinghouse has to do even this partial job, it has to tie up with another big US major for the completion of the original programme.
There is every possibility that the financially battered Toshiba will part with its nuclear generation business to save its other core businesses. The British government has already been looking for an alternative to Toshiba to take care of its important programme of replacing ageing nuclear reactors. France has also started looking for a replacement since Toshiba indicated that it is not possible for the company to take the responsibility of about US$ 15 billion investment for its project.
In such a situation, India has no other alternative but to have a complete review of its agreement with Westinghouse. The American company's discussions with the NPCIL have been rendered meaningless following the Toshiba developments. There is no financial backup now of Westinghouse. The Indian government wanted to get the project completed under one window of Toshiba-Westinghouse, and this is not possible. Even if Westinghouse is involved, it can only do a minuscule portion of the total job which will make the task of NPCIL more complicated and cumbersome since there will be too many stakeholders.
Westinghouse can make the claim that it would only provide the nuclear equipment AP1000 plants in which it has expertise. But the latest developments have shown that AP 1000 plants have performed poorly in recent years. The AP1000 authorities is a scaled-up version of the AP600; the latter received regulatory approval from the US authorities in 1999 but was clearly uneconomic and never found a customer.
The AP1000 design was submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2002. Given that it was portrayed as just a scaled-up version of an already approved design, it was assumed that regulatory approval would be quick. However, the process involved multiple design revisions, and it was not until 2011 that a final design was approved. It was a strategic victory for the Westinghouse AP1000, by then owned by Toshiba of Japan, over the AREVA EPR, because China had signalled that it expected subsequent reactor orders for China would be for AP1000.
The first orders for the AP1000 were for two units at each of the Sanmen and Haiyang sites in China. Construction of these units started in 2009-10 with completion expected in 2013-15. Four further orders for AP1000 for the USA, two each for the Summer and Vogtle sites, began construction in 2013 with the then expected completion in 2016-17.
By 2015, the Chinese plants were running 18-36 months late, while the US plants, after only two years of construction, late by two years or more. Unlike Taishan, where reports of problems only emerged after 4-5 years of construction, reports of problems emerged after two years in 2011 with the reactor coolant pumps a particularly long-running issue. By May 2015, Westinghouse and its Chinese partner, State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation, claimed that the problems had been solved after five years of multiple failed endurance tests.
This is far from the first that Westinghouse has made such claims. While this appears to have been the major problem, there have been many other issues such as design (squib valves), poor documentation, and quality issues. Like Taishan, there are increasing concerns about commissioning tests and acceptance criteria.
Thus the Narendra Modi government has to take immediate decision for replacing Westinghouse and go for another company which is trusted and will offer India a better package and technology. Russian Nuclear State Energy Corporation (ROSATOM) has proposed to build six nuclear reactors with a capacity to generate 1170 MW each. Already, NPCIL is building four nuclear power plants at Kudankulam, and two more will be constructed.
These are all of 1,000 MW each. ROSATOM has offered plants for higher capacity. With the US nuclear power collaboration project under a cloud, the Indian government should make no delay in starting negotiations on the second site for the Russian-built plants.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)