India’s nuclear ambitions get a boost as Russia pledges support for new high-capacity power plants

The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) is currently the biggest success story of the India-Russia nuclear partnership. This flagship project, which will eventually have six 1,000 MW VVER reactors of Russian design, has been under construction since 2002 with assistance from ROSATOM.

India’s ambitious plans to significantly increase its nuclear power capacity over the next few decades got a major shot in the arm this week. Russia, already a key partner in India’s nuclear energy program, has offered to help construct new high-capacity nuclear power plants at additional sites across the country.

The offer came from Alexey Likhachev, director general of Russia’s state nuclear agency ROSATOM, during a meeting with Dr Ajit Kumar Mohanty, chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. Speaking in Seversk, Russia where Mohanty was visiting the cutting-edge “Proryv” or “Breakthrough” nuclear reactor project, Likhachev stated Russia is ready for “serial construction of the Russian-designed high-capacity nuclear power units at a new site in India.”

This significant development signals Russia’s commitment to substantially expanding its civil nuclear cooperation with India beyond the already ambitious Kudankulam project in Tamil Nadu. It also aligns with India’s goal of achieving a nuclear power capacity of 63,000 MW by 2032 from the current 6,780 MW.

The Kudankulam Success Story

The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) is currently the biggest success story of the India-Russia nuclear partnership. This flagship project, which will eventually have six 1,000 MW VVER reactors of Russian design, has been under construction since 2002 with assistance from ROSATOM.

The first two reactors at Kudankulam began commercial operations in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Work is now underway on the third and fourth reactors, with agreements signed last year to initiate construction of the final two units as well.

According to ROSATOM, the state corporation “is providing fuel to the power units of Kudankulam NPP throughout their entire life cycle.” The project has showcased effective cooperation between the two countries in all aspects of the nuclear program from construction and equipment supply to fuel fabrication and waste management.

Additional Russian-built nuclear plants would unlock immense benefits for India in terms of enhancing its energy security, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and providing a reliable source of baseload electricity to power its growth ambitions.

With India’s energy demand projected to rise steeply as its economy expands and population grows, nuclear power can provide a steady and sustainable alternative to the country’s overreliance on coal and natural gas. Nuclear energy’s minimal carbon footprint also aligns with India’s climate commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Moreover, civil nuclear cooperation gives India access to Russia’s latest civilian reactor technologies like the game-changing “Proryv” design which aims to create a closed nuclear fuel cycle to deal with spent fuel and radioactive waste issues.

Addressing the Challenges

However, pursuing such large-scale expansion of nuclear power also brings its own set of technological, economic, and public acceptance challenges that India will need to carefully navigate.

On the technical front, India will have to develop a robust local supply chain and skilled human resources to support the construction and operation of multiple new Russian nuclear plants simultaneously. This is on top of the institutional capacity building required for its domestic nuclear power program.

Funding could also be a major constraint given the capital-intensive nature of nuclear projects. With Westinghouse’s exit from the domestic reactor construction scene, India may have to rely solely on Russia or its own financial resources unless it can attract investment from other foreign partners like France.

But one of the biggest hurdles may be gaining public trust, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. Allaying safety concerns around nuclear facilities located in densely populated areas through greater transparency and rock-solid regulation will be crucial.

The Russia Dimension

For Russia, enhancing its role as a key nuclear vendor for India chimes with its strategic interests on multiple fronts. It helps cement Moscow’s influence in the Indian Ocean region at a time when geopolitical rivals like China are making inroads.

The lucrative nuclear deals with a market as big as India’s also provide an economic boost for Russia’s domestic nuclear industry. They offer opportunities to showcase advanced Russian reactor models and expand export potential to other nations exploring nuclear energy.

Russia’s stated willingness to cooperate on fuel cycle facilities could further deepen interdependencies in this crucial strategic field. Some analysts suggest long-term nuclear cooperation may even help offset Russia’s reliance on arms exports to India.

Beyond Nuclear Ties

While civil nuclear cooperation has been the showpiece of their strategic partnership, Russia and India have an expansive agenda spanning multiple sectors like defence, energy, trade and more.

Just last week, India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar highlighted that the two countries have an estimated pipeline of $28 billion of investment projects awaiting implementation when he met Russia’s deputy prime minister Denis Manturov in Moscow.

Among the other major projects in the works are Russia’s participation in India’s national missile defence program, long-term agreements for the import of Russian crude oil and investment in Russia’s Arctic region. Russian firms have also committed billions toward investment in India’s infrastructure and energy sectors.

The Road Ahead

As India and Russia look to strengthen their special and privileged strategic partnership, nuclear energy seems poised to retain its preeminent position as a driver of closer cooperation between the two nations.

India values Russia’s decades of proven experience in nuclear technology and cost-competitive offering. From Moscow’s perspective, engaging New Delhi in transformative civilian nuclear projects helps counterbalance Russia’s tilt toward Beijing while serving its economic and geopolitical interests.

For nuclear cooperation to reach its full potential though, both sides will have to adroitly navigate an array of technological, financial, safety and public acceptance challenges. Meticulous planning, sufficient investment and capacity building, stringent safety protocols and proactive communication campaigns to address public concerns will be key prerequisites.

If they can surmount these hurdles, India and Russia could realize a bright future in which Russian reactors power a significant chunk of India’s electricity needs through self-sustaining closed nuclear fuel cycles. Such success would not only give India greater energy security but also establish it as a global hub of cutting-edge nuclear technology through the transfer of expertise from Moscow. It would be a win-win for both strategic partners.