Category Archives: Japan

Plutonium’s global problems are piling up

Climate News Network | Paul Brown | January 22, 2016

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he nuclear fuel carriers Pacific Heron and Pacific Egret in port at Barrow-in-Furness, England, before setting sail for Japan. Image: CORE

Increasing worldwide stockpiles of surplus plutonium are becoming a political embarrassment, a worrying security risk, and a hidden extra cost to the nuclear industry.

LONDON, 22 January, 2016 − Two armed ships set off from the northwest of England this week to sail round the world to Japan on a secretive and controversial mission to collect a consignment of plutonium and transport it to the US.

The cargo of plutonium, once the most sought-after and valuable substance in the world, is one of a number of ever-growing stockpiles that are becoming an increasing financial and security embarrassment to the countries that own them.

So far, there is no commercially viable use for this toxic metal, and there is increasing fear that plutonium could fall into the hands of terrorists, or that governments could be tempted to use it to join the nuclear arms race.

All the plans to use plutonium for peaceful purposes in fast breeder and commercial reactors have so far failed to keep pace with the amounts of this highly-dangerous radioactive metal being produced by the countries that run nuclear power stations.

The small amounts of plutonium that have been used in conventional and fast breeder reactors have produced very little electricity − at startlingly high costs.

Out of harm’s way

Japan, with its 47-ton stockpile, is among the countries that once hoped to turn their plutonium into a power source, but various attempts have failed. The government, which has a firm policy of using it only for peaceful purposes, has nonetheless come under pressure to keep it out of harm’s way. Hence, the current plan to ship it to the US.

Altogether, 15 countries across the world have stockpiles. They include North Korea, which hopes to turn it into nuclear weapons.

The UK has the largest pile, with 140 tons held at Sellafield in north-west England, where plutonium has been produced at the site’s nuclear power plant since the 1950s. The government has yet to come up with a policy on what to do with it – and, meanwhile, the costs of keeping it under armed guard continue to rise.

Like most countries, the UK cannot decide whether it has an asset or a liability. The plutonium does not appear on any balance sheet, and the huge costs of storing it safely − to avoid it going critical and causing a meltdown − and guarding it against terrorists are not shown as a cost of nuclear power.

This enables the industry to claim that nuclear is an attractive and clean energy-producing option to help combat climate change.

The two ships that set off from the English port of Barrow-in-Furness this week are the Pacific Egret and Pacific Heron, nuclear fuel carriers fitted with naval cannon on deck. They are operated by Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd, which ultimately is owned by the British government.

“We see this as wholly unnecessary and
a significant security threat in today’s
volatile and unpredictable world”

The presence on both ships of a heavily-armed security squad − provided by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary’s Strategic Escort Group − and the earlier loading of stores and the craning on board of live ammunition point to a long, security-conscious voyage ahead.

The shipment of plutonium from Japan to the US falls under the US-led Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), or Material Management & Minimisation (M3) programme, whereby weapons-useable material such as plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) is removed from facilities worldwide for safekeeping in the US.

The cargo to be loaded onto the two UK ships in Japan consists of some 331kg of plutonium from Japan’s Tokai Research Establishment.

This plutonium – a substantial fraction of which was supplied to Japan by the UK decades ago for “experimental purposes” in Tokai’s Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) facility − is described by the US Department of Energy (DOE) as “posing a potential threat to national security, being susceptible to use in an improvised nuclear device, and presenting a high risk of theft or diversion”. Or, as another US expert put it, “sufficient to make up to 40 nuclear bombs”.

Under the US-led programme, the plutonium will be transported from Japan to the US port of Charleston and onwards to the Savannah River site in South Carolina.

Tom Clements, director of the public interest group Savannah River Site Watch, has condemned this import of plutonium as a material that will simply be stranded at the site, with no clear disposition path out of South Carolina. He sees it as further evidence that Savannah River is being used as a dumping ground for an extensive range of international nuclear waste.

Prime terrorist material

The British group Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) has for decades tracked the transport of nuclear materials round the world.

Their spokesman, Martin Forwood, said: “The practice of shipping this plutonium to the US as a safeguard is completely undermined by deliberately exposing this prime terrorist material to a lengthy sea transport, during which it will face everyday maritime risks and targeting by those with hostile intentions.

“We see this as wholly unnecessary and a significant security threat in today’s volatile and unpredictable world.”

The best option, CORE believes, would have been to leave it where it was, under guard.

From DOE documents, this shipment will be the first of a number of planned shipments for what is referred to as “Gap Material Plutonium” – weapons-useable materials that are not covered under other US or Russian programmes.

In total, the DOE plans to import up to 900kg of “at risk” plutonium − currently held in seven countries − via 12 shipments over seven years. Other materials include stocks of HEU – the most highly enriched plutonium,(to 93%), also being supplied to Japan by the UK.

The voyage from Barrow to Japan takes about six weeks, and a further seven weeks from Japan to Savannah River − use of the Panama Canal having been ruled out by the DOE in its documents on the shipment. Previously, the countries near the canal have objected to nuclear transport in their territorial waters. – Climate News Network

 

US Asia Rebalance Still Lacks Direction, Resources: Study

A new think tank report takes Washington’s Asia strategy to task and suggests how to boost it.

The Diplomat | Prashanth Parameswaran | January 21, 2016

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The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transits the Pacific Ocean with ships assigned to Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2010.
Image Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

More than four years after it was first unveiled, the Obama administration’s pivot or rebalance to the Asia-Pacific lacks the necessary direction and resources to secure U.S. interests, a new think tank report released this week argues.

The report, an independent assessment commissioned by the U.S. Congress under the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, notes that the United States has still yet to articulate a clear Asia-Pacific strategy and adequately resource it even in the face of rising threats to American interests, particularly from a more capable and risk-tolerant China.

“[T]he study team is concerned that the administration’s rebalance effort may be insufficient to secure these interests,” the study, “Asia Pacific Rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence and Partnerships,” published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), argues.

To address this, the report makes four sets of recommendations. First, given the confusion still heard about the rebalance strategy within the U.S. government and across the Asia-Pacific, it suggests better aligning Asia strategy at home and abroad through several measures, including preparing an Asia-Pacific strategic report, better aligning strategy and resources, and increasing administration outreach to Congress.

“Addressing this confusion will require that the executive branch develop and then articulate a clear and coherent strategy and discuss that strategy with Congress as well as with allies and partners across the world,” the study argues.

Second, with security challenges increasingly outpacing the capabilities of regional states, the report recommends strengthening U.S. allies and partners. To do so, it calls for a “differentiated strategy” that includes a federated approach sharing capabilities with highly-capable allies like Japan and Australia as well as boosting maritime security in less capable Southeast Asian states. It also suggests the formation of a standing U.S. joint task force for the western Pacific to establish clearer U.S. command and control relationships as well as deepening U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster relief expertise and efforts in the region.

“The United States seeks and benefits from the success of all states throughout the region, so building ally and partner security capabilities is in the U.S. interest,” the report noted.

Third, to contend with growing challenges and alleviate concerns at home and abroad about the sustainability of U.S. force posture, the report recommends that the United States expand its military presence in the region. The authors identified initiatives to address capability gaps in ten areas: base realignment, surface fleet presence, undersea warfare, amphibious warfare, air supremacy, missile defense, ground force mission sets, logistics, munitions, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

“Forward presence, including forces deployed, is central to U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific and strengthening U.S. military posture in these areas will require a sustained commitment and additional resources,” the study said.

Fourth, the authors emphasize that the United States should accelerate the development of capabilities and concepts to ensure it can deter and prevail in potential conflicts. Here, the authors identify capability gaps in two types of areas in particular: those required to offset an emerging risk to U.S. forces such as the growing ballistic missile risk to U.S. ships and forward bases, and those that Washington could develop to provide an asymmetric counter to potential regional competitors. These include the undersea domain, additional air combat systems, as well as space, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.

“The United States must update existing concepts and capabilities to ensure that the future force is capable of deterring and prevailing in potential conflicts,” the authors wrote.

Nuclear disaster drill held near Japan’s only rebooted plant

Japan Today | Kyodo | December 20, 2015

KAGOSHIMA — A nuclear disaster drill was held Sunday around the country’s sole running nuclear power plant in southwestern Japan, following its reactivation earlier this year.

About 3,600 officials and residents took part in the event to prepare for the possibility of a serious accident within 30 kilometers of Kyushu Electric Power Co.‘s Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture. The last time a major drill was held around the plant was in October 2013.

The drill assumed that a strong earthquake of intensity upper 6 on the Japanese scale of 7 had caused the plant to lose power sources and become unable to cool its reactors. About 1,200 residents within 5 km from the plant were evacuated by bus and other vehicles.

People farther than 5 km but within 30 km were instructed to move in accordance with a prefectural-run system to determine how the wind was blowing to avoid areas with radioactive fallout.

At the two-reactor Sendai plant, located in the city of Satsumasendai, the No. 1 reactor resumed operation in August and the No. 2 unit in October. All other nuclear reactors in Japan remain offline in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Opponents of U.S. nuclear bomb ‘glorification’ park seek Japanese support

The Asahi Shimbun | Masato Tainaka | December 17, 2015

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Visitors to the B reactor at the Hanford facility listen to an explanation of the work once done at the site. (Masato Tainaka)

Residents who fell sick living near the facility that produced plutonium for the Nagasaki atomic bomb are seeking Japanese support for a campaign against an attraction in the United States that they say “glorifies” nuclear weapons.

The move by the group called Consequences of Radiation Exposure (CORE) follows the U.S. government’s establishment on Nov. 10 of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park at three sites related to the development of the first atomic bombs used by the United States.

One of those sites is in Hanford, Washington state, which in 1945 produced the plutonium for the world’s first nuclear test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, as well as in the bomb detonated over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.

“The intended purpose of this new park was to glorify the science behind the atomic bomb,” said Trisha Pritikin, 65, a founding member of CORE and a lawyer whose father worked as an engineer at the Hanford facility. “We are fighting an uphill battle.”

One of CORE’s objectives is to collect donations to build a new museum in Seattle to focus on the negative consequences of the nuclear weapons development program and nuclear energy.

Tom Bailie, 68, a farmer near Hanford and CORE member, said: “Humans cannot co-exist with nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants. I want to build a museum with the people of Japan who are well aware of that.”

CORE is comprised of people living near the Hanford site, like Bailie, who fell sick over the years, likely due to the radiation emitted from the facility.

Bailie has suffered from various health problems since childhood. At 18, he was diagnosed as being infertile. Family members have also died of cancer.

He has previously spoken to the media about what he calls “the death mile” near his home where there has been a high incidence of miscarriage, deformed babies, cancer and leukemia.

Bailie also appeared in the 2003 Japanese movie “Hibakusha–At the End of the World” about the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Iraqi victims of depleted uranium shells, directed by Hitomi Kamanaka.

After World War II, the Hanford facility produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for about 7,000 bombs the same size as the one dropped on Nagasaki.

In 1986, the U.S. Energy Department released 19,000 pages of confidential documents in response to a freedom-of-information request made by local residents.

According to the documents, an experiment called “Green-run” at the Hanford site in December 1949 intentionally emitted 740 terabecquerels of radioactive xenon-133 and 287 terabecquerels of iodine-131. One tera is 1 trillion bequerels.

The area around the Hanford site was also contaminated with various radioactive elements during the Cold War. Work to decontaminate the site continued from 1989 after the facility shut down, but 177 underground tanks store large volumes of highly radioactive waste liquids that have not been processed at all.

Those residents living near the facility call themselves “downwinders” because they developed cancer and thyroid problems likely caused by wind-borne radioactive elements from the Hanford site.

Pritikin’s parents both died of thyroid cancer and she herself suffers from headaches and gastrointestinal and thyroid problems. She said radiation from the Hanford site “killed him (my father), my mom, and, maybe, eventually me.”

Since 1990, about 5,000 individuals, including many downwinders, have filed lawsuits against the companies contracted with the Department of Energy. Pritikin was one of those litigants, but courts never acknowledged a causal relationship between radiation and health problems. Many of the plaintiffs died before a verdict was even handed down.

The B reactor at Hanford that produced the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb has already been opened as a museum to the public. It will likely become the main attraction for the national historical park that officials want to be complete in around 2020, with the other Manhattan Project sites in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The display at the Hanford B reactor now highlights the scientific achievements that gave birth to the nuclear age.

However, Norma Field, professor emeritus of East Asian studies at the University of Chicago who is also a CORE director, said other sides of the story should also be told.

“The history of the Manhattan Project cannot be passed off as a history of triumph. It is a history of widespread, continued suffering on the part of U.S. citizens,” Field said.

“Hibakusha seeing themselves as part of a global history of exploitation and suffering through the CORE project would be an immense contribution.”

By MASATO TAINAKA/ Staff Writer

Japan’s nuclear watchdog isn’t policing its own safety standards

Greenpeace International | Justin McKeating | 14 December, 2015

A watchdog that isn’t watching is no watchdog at all.

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It emerged last week that Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is failing to conduct adequate safety checks at the country’s nuclear reactors.

It’s like this: in 2012, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the then nuclear watchdog (more like nuclear lapdog), the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) was abolished. NISA was a branch of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and also had the responsibility to promote nuclear energy in Japan.

You can see the problem. An organisation that was supposed to hold the nuclear industry to account while promoting nuclear energy? NISA had to go.

And so the NRA was born with a mandate enshrined in law to draw up and police safety procedures and protocols that would aim to prevent another Fukushima.

In the light of recent events, it would seem the NRA is failing miserably in its duty.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has announced that approximately 2,000 cables have been incorrectly installed at two of its nuclear power plants – Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and Fukushima Daini (the sister plant of Fukushima Daiichi which was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami).

It was found that cables used for the day to day running of the plants’ reactors were not separate from cables for the safety systems as they should be.

It’s basic common sense: if the safety cables aren’t separate from the rest of the system and there’s an accident, the safety system is compromised along with everything else. If your safety system is compromised, you’re in big trouble.

The kicker?

The Nuclear Regulation Authority failed to conduct on-site inspections to determine if safety equipment cables were installed separately from other cables.

The NRA doesn’t conduct visual inspections of these cables! It relies completely on the honesty on the nuclear operators.

As we’ve seen in the past, this isn’t a very sensible policy. For example, TEPCO was warned in 2008 that tsunami defences at Fukushima No. 1 were inadequate but ignored and covered up the warning. We all know what happened three years later: earthquake, tsunami and meltdown.

This is just two nuclear plants we’re talking about right now. How many more might be compromised? How can the problem be fixed? The NRA simply doesn’t know.

“At present, we can’t deny the possibility that other cables are mixed at pressurized-water reactors, but how to handle the problem has yet to be decided,” it has said.

The Japanese government and nuclear industry are currently in a reckless, headlong rush to restart the country’s idle nuclear reactors in the face of major concerns about those reactors’ safety.

The last thing the Japanese people need is a nuclear “watchdog” asleep on the job.

The potential risks from this problem cannot be understated – but it is just one of multiple nuclear  safety issues that remain unresolved, ignored and brushed aside both by nuclear power utilities and the NRA.

In the coming months, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will conduct a review of the NRA – the first since its inception in 2012. If the IAEA were up to the job, its review would be robust, critical and transparent.

Unfortunately, we have no confidence that it will be. One international nuclear lapdog reviewing another domestic lapdog is no way to oversee an industry that, in the event of an accident, can threaten the existence of a society. That was the reality faced by Japanese Prime Minister Kan after Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission gave him the then-confidential worst case scenario for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe while the disaster was still unfolding in March 2011.

The majority of the people of Japan do not believe that nuclear power can be made safe – one of the primary reasons that at the end of 2015 only two reactors out of a possible 43 are operating. Japanese civil society, including Greenpeace, will continue the fight into next year to stop further nuclear reactor restarts. We are committed to helping to bring about the energy future that is affordable, attainable and that guarantees no future nuclear reactor disasters or nuclear victims – and that is a Japanese society based on renewable energy.

In the year of the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi accident and thirty years after the Chernobyl accident the nuclear-free, renewable energy future is not only possible, but is what Japan, and the rest of the world, deserve and will achieve.

Justin McKeating is a nuclear blogger for Greenpeace International, based in the UK.

Fukushima chief says ‘no textbook’ for cleanup

AP | Interview by Yuri Kageyama | December 15, 2015

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TOKYO (AP) — The man leading the daunting task of dealing with the Fukushima nuclear plant that sank into meltdowns in northeastern Japan warns with surprising candor: Nothing can be promised.

How long will it take to decommission the three breached reactors, and how will it be accomplished, when not even robots have been able to enter the main fuel-debris areas so far? How much will it ultimately cost? Naohiro Masuda, tapped last year as chief of decontamination and decommissioning for plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co., acknowledges he is a long way from answering those questions definitively.

“This is something that has never been experienced. A textbook doesn’t exist for something like this,” Masuda told The Associated Press in an interview at TEPCO’s Tokyo headquarters Monday.

It’s only recently the daily situation at Fukushima Dai-ichi has even started to approach “normal,” he said. Since the March 2011 meltdowns, TEPCO has had to face one huge challenge after another, including storing masses of leaking radioactive water, clearing up rubble and removing fuel rods from a crumbled building.

“Before, it was a war zone,” Masuda said quietly.

Masuda’s approach contrasts with the sometimes ambitious, sometimes wishful announcements by the Japanese government, which pronounced the disaster “under control” as early as late 2011, just months after a devastating tsunami knocked out power to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, setting off the meltdowns.

But in June, the government and TEPCO acknowledged the target dates in the official “roadmap” for decommissioning had to be pushed back by about two years. Now even the most optimistic projections estimate the work will take about half a century.

Masuda said without hesitation that more delays could be in order. No one knows exactly where the melted nuclear debris is sitting in the reactors, let alone how exactly the debris might be taken out. Computer simulation and speculative images are all he has so far.

New science will have to be invented for the plant to be cleaned up. Each step of the way, safety and consequences must be weighed, for workers and for the environment alike, Masuda added.

Under the latest plan, the removal of the fuel debris is expected to start within a decade. Still, Masuda likened such goals to reminders not to slack off, rather than hard deadlines based on real-life assessments.

The March 2011 catastrophe is unprecedented. Unlike the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in the U.S., the containment, where the morass of fuel lies, has been breached at Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Radioactive water is piling up: 300 tons a day by the latest count. And as devastating as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster was in what is now Ukraine, that involved one reactor, not three.

When asked about what he wanted to tell the people worried about contaminated fish, such as on the West Coast of North and South America, Masuda said the radiation leak into the Pacific Ocean has been reduced to a level one-millionth of what it was in 2011.

That’s equivalent to what is deemed safe for drinking water, he said. Some radiation will continue to leak through rainfall, because rainwater will pick up radiation from the plant grounds, and some of it will eventually fall into the ocean.

“They don’t need to worry, and, if there is anything to worry about, we will be out with that information,” he said.

Masuda, who has worked for TEPCO for more than 30 years, won praise for preventing meltdowns or explosions at Fukushima Dai-ni, a sister plant that also lost electricity after the 2011 tsunami. As then head of Dai-ni, Masuda acted quickly and decisively, leading his team, despite the chaos unfolding, to connect the reactors to surviving power sources.

His company’s image is much different. TEPCO’s reputation in the Japanese public eye was badly tarnished because of its bumbling response in the early days of the disaster.

The utility has undergone a public bailout and has readied 2 trillion yen ($17 billion) for decommissioning. The Japanese government has earmarked 54 billion yen ($446 million) of public funds for researching decommissioning technology through this fiscal year.

Such money doesn’t include compensation or damage lawsuits. The Fukushima catastrophe spewed radiation into the air, ocean and surrounding areas through hydrogen explosions, and displaced some 100,000 people.

The way TEPCO is spending money has drawn some criticism from experts abroad. Unlike the U.S. system, there is no open bid or escrow fund in Japan to dole out the massive decommissioning funds.

Much of the work is going to the Japanese manufacturers that constructed the plants, such as Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Inc., under long-term contracts. Some outside international consultants are involved, and some foreign companies have gotten water-decontamination and other contracts.

Akira Tokuhiro, an American and nuclear expert who teaches at the University of Idaho, supports an open bidding process that invites more international expertise. He noted that Japan has no, or very little, decommissioning experience, compared to the Americans, the French and the Russians.

“An international effort has the potential to reduce both time and cost, while maintaining safety, transparency and cost,” he said.

Douglas Chapin, of MPR, a U.S. nuclear engineering organization that has advised the American and Japanese nuclear industries, was less critical, defending the Japanese method as simply different.

Masuda said awarding contracts without opening bidding is what’s best for Fukushima, and that TEPCO needs to take primary responsibility.

“We don’t think competition is beneficial as that will mean people doing the work will keep changing,” he said. “The system we have is better.”

But Masuda also acknowledged that Japan has not done as good a job as it should have on relaying the harsh realities at the plant. He said it’s his mission to relay all information, the good and the bad.

“When I took this job, I promised to work as an interpreter, to relay our work in a way that’s understandable to regular people, and to communicate within the company what people are interested in and worried about,” he said.

“If the interpreter is good, the conversation will be lively. If the interpreter is good, dialogue will follow.”

India, Japan reach agreement on nuclear cooperation

WNN | 14 December 2015

After many years of negotiations, India and Japan have signed a memorandum on cooperating in nuclear energy. However, certain technical and legal issues must be resolved before a final agreement can be signed.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Shinzo Abe at the signing ceremony, in New Delhi on December 12, 2015.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Shinzo Abe at the signing ceremony, in New Delhi on December 12, 2015.

The memorandum – outlining broad areas for cooperation – was signed on 12 December in Delhi by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.

Negotiations between the two countries for a civil nuclear deal began in 2010. However, those talks were suspended after the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. During a May 2013 meeting by Abe and India’s then-prime minister Manmohan Singh, the two leaders said that negotiations had resumed.

Speaking at a press conference after the signing, Modi said: “The memorandum we signed on civil nuclear energy cooperation is more than just an agreement for commerce and clean energy.” He said, “It is a shining symbol of a new level of mutual confidence and strategic partnership in the cause of a peaceful and secure world.”

Modi added, “I know the significance of this decision for Japan. And I assure you that India deeply respects that decision and will honour our shared commitments.”

In a statement, Abe noted that the final agreement on cooperation “will be signed after the technical details are finalised, including those related to the necessary internal procedures”.

The signing of such an accord would enable India to import Japanese nuclear technology and services.

The two prime ministers also affirmed their commitment to work toward India becoming a full member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

India was largely excluded from international trade in nuclear plant and materials for over three decades because of its position outside the comprehensive safeguards regime of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Special agreements ended its isolation in 2009 and the country may now engage in nuclear trade with those countries with which it has since signed cooperation agreements: Australia, Canada, France, Kazakhstan, Russia, the UK and the USA. Foreign technology and fuel are expected to boost India’s nuclear power plans considerably.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News