A lot of ink has been spent on Russian-Indian cooperation during 2020, which was a very difficult year. In the wake of the global economic crisis associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused temporary closure of production facilities and restrictions on travel around the world, the Russian-Indian volume of trade has also declined. However, apart from the pandemic there are no other compelling reasons for scaling down the intensity of cooperation between Russia and India. India continues to be one of the Russian Federation’s main partners in Asia, especially in areas related to high technologies. A huge amount of cooperation continues in the military, healthcare, educational, and other fields. Also, joint work in the field of nuclear energy continues, which is being performed by the Russian State Corporation for Atomic Energy Rosatom and the Indian corporation responsible for atomic energy (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, abbreviated as NPCIL).
It is common knowledge that in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant was commissioned a long time ago, and continues to grow; this was built under the leadership of the Russian company Atomstroyexport, a subsidiary of Rosatom, as part of an order submitted by NPCIL. Work on the nuclear power plant ran into resistance from the Indian public, alarmed by the disaster that occurred in 2011 with the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. However, supporters of the project managed to convince opponents that the Russian VVER-1000 water-cooled, water-moderated reactors used to fit out the Kudankulam plant are, in terms of safety and the ability to withstand external threats, significantly superior to the reactors that were damaged at Fukushima. The first power generation unit was hooked up to the electrical grid in 2013, and the second one in 2016. In 2017, construction work on a third power generation unit began, and an agreement was signed to build a fifth and sixth unit.
In October 2018, a Russian-Indian summit was held in New Delhi, during which a new document was signed detailing Russian-Indian cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. Russia and India came to an agreement on a series of joint projects, including building a new nuclear power plant in India that consists of six power generation units with Russian-produced reactors. In September 2020, Rosatom stated that it had started talks with the Indian side about the construction site location. It is likely that, in keeping with established tradition, the new NPP will be named after its location, which means that only when that is selected will the project’s name become known.
In December 2020, the Russian nuclear fuel manufacturer TVEL and NPCIL signed an agreement on new deliveries of nuclear fuel. Fuel for nuclear power plants is supplied inside components called fuel assemblies (TVSs), which are metal structures that help it to be expended more efficiently. These components, which contain the nuclear fuel inside, are then installed in the reactor. Reactors at the Kudankulam NPP do not operate on standard fuel assemblies, but on more complex ones called advanced fuel assemblies – UTVSs. And now, in conformance with the agreement from December, two reactors at the Indian NPP will be switched over to new, even more advanced TVSs named the TVS-2M. These fuel assemblies have a stronger design, contain more nuclear fuel, and have a longer design-basis operational lifetime. Switching two reactors at the Kudankulam NPP over to TVS-2Ms will require not only shipping in these fuel assemblies from Russia, but also preparing an extensive scope of documentation, making changes to the software, introducing other technological improvements to the Russian-Indian NPP, and giving its personnel additional training. All this is also spelled out in the agreement that was signed in December 2020.
In general, the year 2020, despite the global economic downturn associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, turned out to be a productive one for Russian-Indian nuclear cooperation on the Kudankulam project. Like any large-scale and technologically complex project such as this, many organizations and companies on both the Russian and Indian sides are involved in Kudankulam, and many of them were able to report good results over this past year.
For example, in February 2021, the media reported that the Trubodetal Plant (in Chelyabinsk, Russia), which is part of the Russian United Metallurgical Company, manufactured and delivered more than 300 tons of products made from high alloy stainless steel in 2020 to Atomstroyexport to help build Kudankulam – for the most part, these were complex pipeline systems. It also came to light that in 2021 Trubodetal intends to deliver another 200 tons of its goods for Kudankulam to Atomstroyexport.
Another interesting piece of news related to the plant in Chelyabinsk and its participation in the Russian-Indian nuclear power plant project is that an agreement was signed between Trubodetal and NPCIL, reached through mediation by Atomstroyexport, to send Indian product quality control specialists to Chelyabinsk for long time periods in 2021. Freight shipments of equipment for nuclear power plants cannot be dispatched without careful product quality assurance work done by both sides, and during different stages of production. To accomplish that, NPCIL employees come to Chelyabinsk many times each year. This is difficult for the Indian side, and slows down the work performed by the Russian plant. Starting in 2021, Indian specialists will be in Chelyabinsk on a permanent basis, and will be able to expeditiously monitor the quality of the products during the manufacturing process; this will help significantly increase the pace of production.
All these reports indicate that Russian-Indian cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear energy continues, and is maturing. The very fact that this cooperation exists speaks of the high level of trust between the two countries – both in terms of one side providing its partner with its strategically important technologies and in terms of the other side allowing its partner to build a nuclear power plant on its territory that has an enormous generation capacity. And the fact that Russia and India are now negotiating on the construction of a second nuclear power plant suggests that Russian-Indian cooperation has not only reached great heights, but also holds great prospects. This is especially true taking into account that India plans on increasing its nuclear generation capacity by 2032 from the current level of 6.9 gigawatts (as of January 2021) to 63 gigawatts (by almost 10 times!). This will entail grandiose nuclear construction projects, and Russia can gain a leading role in that.
Dmitry Bokarev, a political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.