Nuclear power in South Asia: opportunities and challenges for Canada

Now that the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has voted to lift its general ban on nuclear trade with India, western countries are lining up to grab their share of this burgeoning and lucrative civilian nuclear market. What opportunities are there for companies in the Canadian nuclear industry? India has 17 power reactors, 15 of which are pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs). Two of the PHWRs are CANDUs, built in the 1960s and early ’70s; the other 13 are an Indian design based closely on CANDU. India plans to add many more reactors to its fleet, and though some of these will be light-water designs, it appears the country will remain strongly committed to heavy water (see article).

India’s power reactors have been chronically under-fueled, so this is one obvious area of commercial opportunity. Canada is the world’s largest uranium producer, with well developed processing capability as well. India does not have much economically recoverable uranium and needs to import it; this was part of the impetus behind the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal, which the U.S. just ratified. PHWRs use natural uranium fuel, the fabrication of which could conceivably be carried out in India, with outside help, without involving the export of equipment, materials, or technology that could be classified as “sensitive.”

You might think that on this basis Canadian companies are well positioned. But we have to remember that most of India’s operating PHWRs are currently outside IAEA safeguards. Unless that changes, Canada cannot provide fuel for these machines. Our current fuel supply prospects are therefore limited to stockpiling fuel at the few safeguarded PHWRs, and for the planned PHWRs and LWRs. The latter prospect depends first on the success of Canada’s diplomacy in getting us into the enriched fuel business (see article), and second on whether we can beat out LWR vendors’ fuel supply offers. I’m not placing any bets just yet.

The more important area of potential opportunity is in the manufacturing supply chain. According to the World Nuclear Association there are two small (202 megawatt) PHWRs under construction, with another six larger (640 MW) units planned or proposed. Canada possesses all the expertise needed to at least assist in developing an integrated PHWR supply chain in India. The question is will those reactors be designated as civilian.

The above activities, applied to the civilian program, appear to fall within what would be acceptable under the new NSG rules. However, the devil is in the details and the details of these rules are far from clear at this time. Moreover, there appears to be room for individual NSG countries to adopt their own policies regarding what they will and will not sell to India.

Further into the future, India’s plans to develop a thorium fuel cycle could also present opportunities for Canada. Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) has extensively researched thorium use in PHWR CANDUs. AECL has identified scenarios in which CANDUs play a role in both a once-through thorium fuel cycle to extend uranium resources and as burners of uranium-233 that has been “bred” from thorium in fast reactors (see article). There could be considerable potential here.

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15 years ago

Up to now I have been a supporter of AECL and a Canadian nuclear industry. But I dont think this position is tenable. I now think that Canadian nuclear workers would benefit most if Areva bought AECL, and used this Canadian expertise to expand its business in India. I just cant see AECL making any headway in India when competing with Areva and Westinghouse. The French government likes nuclear and lobbies for it. The Canadian government hates nuclear and wishes it had never been invented. AECL has enough problems without needing to explain why its government hates it to everyone. One interesting consequence my change in thinking is that Ontario should select Areva to build its new reactors.

Steve Aplin
15 years ago

Thanks Randal. Yes, there is a big difference in the ways the French and Canadian governments support nuclear power. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Canadian government hates it, but I take your point. The Ontario communication ban is inconvenient, but there are jobs attached to the AECL technology, with the prospect of many more if Ontario goes with the ACR and many more on top of that if AECL gets the support it needs to sell into other markets, e.g. India and China. Jobs in manufacturing… that would mean something to the feds, but somebody has to talk it up.