India in August began building two 700-MW indigenous nuclear power reactors at Rawatbhatta, in the desert state of Rajasthan. The two pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs), which will use uranium as fuel and heavy water as both moderator and coolant, are the largest to be built by the central government–run Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd. (NPCIL)—and they are the first of many more to come.

NPCIL had in 2005 and 2006 begun commercial operation of two 540-MW indigenous PHWRs at Tarapur in Maharashtra. Indicating that work on a new fleet of 700-MW reactors had started earlier this year, NPCIL reported in August that the excavation and foundation for two 700-MW PHWRs at Kakrapar in Gujarat state was nearly complete, and that it was readying to build four more—two each at Kumharia in Haryana and Bargi in Madhya Pradesh. The Rajasthan and Kakrapar units are expected to be online in 2017, after 60 months of construction from first concrete to criticality.

The country currently operates 18 reactors with a total generation capacity of 4,460 MW. Three reactors are currently under construction, including a 200-MW indigenous reactor at Kaiga, in Karnataka state, and two 1,000-MW VVERs being built by Russia’s Atomstroyexport at Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu. According to NPCIL, with the completion of these reactors and the Gujarat and Rajasthan PHWRs, installed nuclear capacity will reach 9,580 MW by 2016.

But the country’s nuclear ambitions get grander. In late 2008, as part of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007–2012), the nuclear body outlined an “augmentation plan” that included the eight indigenous PHWRs, three or four fast breeder reactors, and one 300-MW advanced heavy water reactor. Then, according to the World Nuclear Association, NPCIL intends to set up five additional “nuclear energy parks,” each with a capacity of up to 10,000 MW. Proposed units, likely new-generation reactors, are expected to provide up to 45 GW, bringing the country’s nuclear capacity to nearly 63,000 MW by 2032.

But India’s plans to make nuclear power a solid part of its generating portfolio aren’t unique. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s annual report, released this July, shows that more than 60 countries—mostly in the developing world—are interested in launching nuclear power programs. According to the agency, the world is seeing a burgeoning nuclear power renaissance: The number of new builds under way globally rose from 33 at the end of 2007 to 60 as of August this year.

There are several reasons for this expansion, but the two most cited were the volatility of fossil fuel prices and concerns regarding global greenhouse gas levels. Still, the agency recognizes that the industry will face challenges, foremost among them, an aging nuclear workforce. Out of a total of 437 nuclear reactors in operation at the end of 2009, 339 had been in operation for more than 20 years, and most workers who had built and operated these plants were due for retirement.

—Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.