Since commencing operations in 2013 amidst huge controversy and public opposition, India’s highest capacity nuclear power plant at Kudankulam, KKNPP, has actually been the worst performer in India’s nuclear fleet. Last year, Unit 1 of the plant remained idle for six months for maintenance. Altogether in the last financial year, the power plant has generated far less power compared to the previous year. So much so, that because of frequent outages and prolonged shutdowns, Tamil Nadu’s electricity distribution company TANGEDCO has been forced to reduce its dependence on KKNPP.
And yet, Rs 39,747crore (USD 5.75 billion) is being invested in the construction of Units 3 and 4 of the Kudankulam power plant. This is more than double the cost of construction of Units 1 and 2, which was Rs 17,270 crore (USD 2.6 billion). While the cost of generating power from the first two units is reported to be Rs 4.29 per unit, the cost from units 3 and 4 is likely to be significantly higher than that.
This begs a pertinent question to which the Indian state has failed to provide a reasonable answer: why does it continue to spend crores on the construction of a plant with the worst track record and questionable safety, which has been a complete failure at meeting the demands of modern grid operators?
Why TANGEDCO is frustrated
Unit 1 of the Kudankulam plant has generated 36% less power in 2018-19 and Unit 2 has generated 22% less power than the previous year as per the data available on the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) website. TANGEDCO officials have reportedly said that at any given time during the last year, only one unit was functioning.
“We are not able to prepare any schedule based on Kudankulam supply. It is as good as not being there,” said a TANGEDCO official in May this year.
Contrary to popular belief, renewable energy, especially from wind farms, has been more reliable than its nuclear counterpart in TANGEDCO’s experience. In recent years, Tamil Nadu has emerged as a world leader in wind energy production. Out of its total capacity of 18,747.28 MW, TANGEDCO generates 10,479.61 MW from renewable sources, of which wind energy alone constitutes 8,359 MW. Wind energy has not only helped meet the electricity demand during the peak seasons of summer and monsoon, but TANGEDCO has also been able to barter the excess electricity generated during the summer with other states to meet the deficit during the winter months.
History of failures
Long shutdowns and outages are not a recent development at Kudankulam; the plant has been running into problems ever since it commenced in 2013. On the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS) website, developed and maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), KKNPP Unit 1 has a lifetime load factor of just 50% while the lifetime load factor of Unit 2 is even lower at 39%.
In other words, Unit 1 and 2 generated 50% and 39% respectively of the total electricity that they could have generated in their entire lifetime.
Kudankulam reactors belong to the third generation VVER-1000 design of nuclear reactors, which are supposed to be safer and more efficient than previous generation models. In order to understand how abysmal these figures are, they can be compared to China’s Tianwan reactors of the same design that have a lifetime load factor of 85.6%.
According to details collected by the NGO Poovulagin Nanbargal from NPCIL under the Right to Information Act, Unit 1 has tripped over 40 times since it was commissioned in 2013 and Unit 2 has tripped 19 times since March 2016. The NGO has also previously drawn the attention of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) towards the fact that after every instance of outage it took at least four months for the unit to restart operations.
Recently a senior reactor engineer who didn’t want to disclose his identity said that the frequent shutdowns were causing apprehensions within the reactor crew as well, adding, “[this] is not acceptable for any kind of nuclear reactor. There is something seriously wrong with the quality of the reactor and the DAE should immediately constitute a high-power body to undertake a thorough probe into the safety and security of these reactors.”
However, the nuclear establishment has not come out in the open about these issues with their so-called ‘state-of-the-art’ reactor. It was only earlier this year that the Atomic Energy Commission finally accepted that there was something unusual about the multiple breakdowns and the resultant shutdowns of these reactors. But Kamlesh Nilkanth Vyas, chairman of the commission, downplayed the problem: “You may realise that Kudankulam was the first 3+ generation plant, possibly in the world. There were initial problems. Even in Tarapur, there were similar problems initially. I believe NPCIL is putting in a tremendous amount of work and they will be able to overcome the difficulties.”
Complete opacity and inflexibility in power supply by NPCIL is not sitting well with the flexibility needed by operators in the context of high renewables penetration and low demand periods. TANGEDCO officials have in the past complained about not being informed about the restarting schedules of the reactors. Moreover, the reactors’ refuelling outages weren’t being scheduled to coincide with the southwest monsoon months of May through September, when there are high winds and abundant water supply for hydro generation. In a series of meetings and exchanges last October, regional power transmission and distribution companies from different states called on NPCIL to correct this, provide more flexible generation and renegotiate a power purchase agreement (PPA) to reflect the growth of renewables.
“Flexible operation is the need of the hour and the system operators is finding it increasingly difficult to manage the system with high renewables penetration and in low-demand scenarios,” (sic) states the minutes of a meeting on October 24 last year at TANGEDCO’s headquarters in Chennai. “Hence NPCIL shall be considerate in acknowledging the issue and discuss technical and commercial difficulties to bring the atomic power stations under flexible generation,” it further says.
TANGEDCO’s conflict with Kudankulam has brought to the fore not only the poor performance of the plant, but also the lack of transparency and flexibility in NPCIL’s operations that has exacerbated the problem. Yet
On the other hand, prices from wind and solar have been dropping steadily. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s analyst Atin Jain, the levelised tariff in SECI’s third and fourth auction in February and April 2018, of nearly USD 20 per megawatt hour or Rs 1.02 per unit, are the cheapest in the world.
Prerna Gupta is a Ph.D. student in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.