Debate over Nuclear Energy in India
Arguments in favour of developing nuclear energy in India
Nuclear power is out gateway to a prosperous future – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam
We should remember that there are nations which meet more than 30 to 60% of their power requirements through the nuclear power system. – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam
a) Energy poverty:
- Although India is the fourth largest energy consumer in the world, only behind the US, China and Russia, it continues to remain energy-poor.
- In 2013, India’s population without access to electricity was estimated to be a staggering 237 million (around 19 percent of the entire population).
- Thus India’s energy poverty remains a big challenge.
b) Climate change (meeting INDC target):
- At the same time, India’s total carbon emissions are on the rise. Since 1990, India’s GHG emissions have risen by nearly 200 percent.
- Due to its emission-free nature, nuclear energy can contribute to global efforts under Paris Agreement (which was decided at the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 meeting in December 2015) to tackle climate change by curbing its total carbon emissions.
- India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has outlined goals to reduce the carbon emissions intensity of its economy by 33-35 percent by 2030 as well as increase the clean energy electricity capacity to 40 percent of the total installed capacity in the same period.
Arguments against nuclear energy
a) Reactor’s cost: Nuclear plants are too expensive. They cost at least billion dollars to be built.
b) Reactor’s safety: Nuclear reactors are unsafe; Chernobyl disaster resulted in a huge death toll.
c) Nuclear waste: In all countries using nuclear energy there are well established procedures for storing, managing and transporting such wastes, funded from electricity users. Wastes are contained and managed, not released. Storage is safe and secure, plans are well in hand for eventual disposal.
d) Fear of being used for making nuclear bombs: Reprocessing spent fuel gives rise to plutonium which is likely to be used in bombs.
e) Insurance : Insurance companies will not insure nuclear reactors so the risk devolves on to government.
f) Use of renewable: If energy efficiency is all that’s needed, then renewable energy sources should be used instead.
Counter-arguments to apprehensions:
a) Reactor’s cost: Once built, the cost to operate a nuclear power plant is constant and predictable since the uranium fuel cost very less. The primary costs of a nuclear plant are the operation, maintenance and capital costs.
b) Reactor’s safety: The nuclear industry has an excellent safety record, with some 14,800 reactor years of operation spanning five decades. The reactors built today are very safe. Even a major accident and meltdown as at Fukushima in 2011 would not endanger its neighbours. There were no deaths or serious radiation doses from the Fukushima accident.
c) Nuclear waste: Nuclear wastes (as spent fuel) are an unresolved problem.
d) Fear of being used for making nuclear bombs:
- The plutonium obtained from reprocessing is not suitable for bombs but is a valuable fuel which can be used with depleted uranium as mixed oxide fuel (MOX).
- Also, all traded uranium is sold for electricity production only, and two layers of international safeguards arrangements confirm this.
e) Insurance: All nuclear reactors, at least in the West, are insured. Beyond the cover for individual plants there are national and international pooling arrangements for comprehensive third-party cover.
f) Renewable are intermittent (unreliable secondary source): Nuclear energy is a reliable source of energy due to its consistent nature of production. Renewable’s may be used as much as possible, but intrinsic limitations (diffuse, intermittent sources) mean that wind and sun can never economically replace sources such as coal, gas and nuclear for large-scale, continuous, reliable supply.
Hurdles to India’s Nuclear Energy Program
Now although India has set an ambitious target of installing nuclear energy, but these targets face many hurdles.
This can be seen by the fact that inspite of successive governments have long touted nuclear power as the solution to India’s energy woes, actual performance has merely flattered to deceive. India’s waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and its agreement with the global atomic body, IAEA, has resulted in limited breakthroughs in the last decade.
a) Membership of Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG):
- For getting full benefit of nuclear cooperation, India needs membership of NSG. But China is openly blocking India’s entry into NSG due to geo-political reasons.
- Membership would allow India’s full scale entry into nuclear energy trade; will help in meeting its growing energy demands; and would allow to shift its energy sources from fossil fuels to clean energy.
- NSG is a useful forum to advance global non-proliferation objectives, and further that India can contribute positively towards that end by being a NSG member.
As India has significant expertise in nuclear energy, it can help other countries in getting access to clean nuclear energy for civilian purpose.
b) Challenges related to Civil and nuclear liability:
- To address the issue of nuclear liability, India has ratified the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage and set up an insurance pool of Rs.1,500 crore ($225 million) for liability risks that may arise from the construction and operation of nuclear power plants in the country.
- It is uncertain, however, if this amount will effectively assuage supplier concerns. Just as an example, after the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, the Indian government claimed $3.3 billion in damages. The proposed insurance pool is measly in comparison.
a) Land acquisition for nuclear energy parks:
- NPCIL plans to develop nuclear energy parks that could each supply 10 GW of power.
- Now there has been significant opposition and local protests to the government plans of land acquisition to develop these nuclear energy parks as seen in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and Jaitapur in Maharashtra. Proposed nuclear energy park of Westinghouse AP 1000 was shifted from from Mithi Virdi in Gujarat to Andhra Pradesh after facing protests by locals.
b) Fuel requirements:
- Uranium: India has low reserves of uranium. But this changed a bit recently with the discovery of the Tummalapalle uranium mine in Andhra Pradesh, which has the potential to be among the largest uranium mines in the world. India has also entered into uranium supply agreements with various countries such as Russia, France and Kazakhstan to import the majority of its uranium needs.
- Thorium: India has huge thorium reserves which forms the basis of its plans for the third stage, the large-scale deployment of thorium reactors. However, few points should be remembered:
1) Thorium technology continues to be a long term goal rather than an immediate option for the country,
2) No country in the world has yet demonstrated a viable and commercial thorium reactor programme; and
3) There is also the question of safety and security.
c) Manufacturing constraints:
- Nuclear power plants require heavy engineering components: Now all countries with serious nuclear power programmes have achieved them with a domestic manufacturing base that covered most of the supply chain of materials required for building a nuclear power plant.
- India’s current manufacturing capability only covers the supply chain for 700 MW PHWRs. It is not yet ready to cover other reactors and reactors with capacities of more than 1 GW.
- Thus, there exist manufacturing and supply chain constraints.
d) Human resource:
- India currently faces a shortfall in nuclear scientists and engineers.
- In 2006, Department of Atomic Energy stated that it would be necessary to train and recruit about 700 scientists and engineers every year in R&D units.
e) Regulatory challenges (wrt AERB):
- As noted by the parliamentary Public Affairs Committee (PAC) report on the AERB, regulatory oversight too faces a huge manpower shortage.
- According to a study by Observer Research Foundation in 2016, India’s nuclear projects are estimated to cost minimum Rs.100,000 crore to construct.
- Attracting finance is vital for a sustained push to develop India’s nuclear programme.
- As noted earlier, the EPR is currently running three times over budget in Finland and the cost stands at €9 billion.
How much nuclear power capacity can be installed by 2050?
- According to various projections it is feasible that the installed nuclear power capacity of India could rise to around 50 GW by mid-century, which would be nearly a tenfold increase on current levels. However, the share of nuclear energy in India’s total electricity mix would still be low.
- On the other hand, for installed nuclear capacity to rise to 100 GW and above, and nuclear power to contribute 25 percent of the electricity produced in the country, the limits will have to be pushed by tilting India’s energy system comprehensively towards nuclear power.
- For this India needs to have a two-pronged strategy:
a) Focus on indigenous production of Pressurized heavy water reactor (PHWRs). Building Indigenous PHWRs has various advantages:
1. India can rapidly scale up the construction of PHWRs across the country unhindered by international politics, tricky bilateral agreements, unreliability of foreign supply chains and massive costs (Both EPRs and AP 1000s are expensive and untested (they are not in commercial operation anywhere around the world yet)).
2. PHWRs will use natural uranium, thus removing the need for enrichment.
3. It will offer India the chance to master a type of nuclear reactor technology. Successful demonstration of this technology will allow India to build PHWRs in other countries, earning it valuable capital for further expanding the fleet of PHWRs at home.
b) International Collaboration:
1. Apart from focussing on indigenous production, India should also complete the existing international projects by solving the issues related to supply of fuel, land requirement and meeting the manpower requirement.
2. India should also focus on getting NSG membership by diplomatically engaging with China and if required then using membership of MTCR as a bargain.
Nuclear power can help to improve energy security. For rapidly developing economy such as India, it (nuclear energy) can make a vitally important contribution to growth. Besides, nuclear power can also reduce the impact of volatile fossil fuel prices and mitigate the effects of climate change.
In pursuit of the peaceful uses of Atomic Energy India has achieved many milestones in this area. A strong R&D base has been established and functions as a backbone for the smooth transition of the research and development activities to the deployment phase and thereby realising the Department of Atomic Energy’s mandate. Many technologies of strategic importance have been mastered to meet developmental needs.
But more need to be done to utilize the potential of Nuclear energy properly without affecting the safety and security of the citizens of India.
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