- India currently operates 22 nuclear reactors at 7 nuclear power plants with a total installed capacity of less than 7,000 MW.
- Nuclear energy is, for now, playing a minuscule role in India’s energy story, contributing to less than 3 percent of the country’s electricity needs.
The advancement into renewables has given some relief to the environment, but the level of emissions has not declined much until the pandemic struck.
The promotion of renewables has increased and cleaner ways to produce energy are being looked into as well. One source of energy that we could have tapped into is Nuclear Energy. Some experts believe that if we had expanded nuclear power in the 1970s, then we might have never heard the term ‘global warming.’ However, nuclear power has been surrounded by questions about viability and feasibility.
India’s Nuclear Energy Muddle
For decades, India is trying to fully tap its economic and human potential. With its high number of young professionals and huge potential of renewable energy sources, India could be a great success story in this century. To rise from a developing to a developed nation, the country will need to provide electricity to its 1.3 billion people and help them come out of poverty.
The power has to be generated from cleaner sources of energy as India’s high dependence on coal has been responsible for increasing its carbon footprint. India has the third-highest coal reserves in the world. India’s coal generation is expected to grow into the late 2030s as compared to other countries, according to BloombergNEF. In order to reduce the emissions, experts have tapped nuclear energy as a viable alternative to coal.
The fact that India has given space for nuclear in its energy basket and features prominently in energy planning is a positive sign. However, the dream of our Indian experts who envisioned a target of around 60 GW for nuclear power by 2032 looks ambitious as of yet. Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), a state-owned corporation currently operates 22 nuclear reactors at 7 nuclear power plants with a total installed capacity of less than 7,000 MW. Another seven reactors are in the works with a combined generation capacity of 4,300 MW.
The country has not been able to put a foot on the accelerator due to its relative isolation in the field of civilian nuclear technology and cooperation. Its refusal to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty in 1970 left the country to manage on its own. India needs to push for greater partnerships internationally to meet its nuclear potential. Restrictive supply regimes and sanctions have been responsible for the low performance of India’s domestic nuclear power industry.
After the Nuclear Supply Groups sanctions were lifted, thanks to the 2005 ‘Indo-U.S. nuclear deal’, the country signed preliminary agreements with three major suppliers: Rosatom in Russia, Areva in France, and Westinghouse and GE in the U.S. By signing agreements with foreign countries, we might be better placed to boost our nuclear power capacity. If India has to come out strong in this space, it should equip itself with the latest technologies. Currently, our thermal reactor technology is constrained to pressurised heavy water reactors (PWHRs), which provide just about 3% of the country’s electricity. Seven units are under construction out of which one is a prototype fast breeder.
India is stuck to its three-stage plan. Seventy years down the line we are still in stage 1 and looking at our R&D record, we should be cautious. Risks should be hedged by investing in alternative sources such as solar and wind which has given great results in the last few years.
Nuclear as a Complement to Solar and Wind
India is a big producer of solar energy as the country is blessed with ample sunlight throughout the year. Nuclear energy could complement it well to meet the country’s energy needs through clean sources.
The domestic energy demand is expected to increase manifold as the country aims for higher economic growth. India is already the world’s third-largest energy consumer in total global primary energy demand, and its energy demand is projected to grow by 4.2% through 2035, and likely to double by 2040.
India has signed a few bilateral deals for reactors, nuclear fuel, and technology to smoothen and assist its nuclear energy expansion plans. However, only Russia and Kazakhstan have emerged as the frontrunners in closing deals with India. The nation has its own issues over the price and liability laws with France and the US. These concerns could be addressed over a dialogue that targets mutual benefit.
Hurdle in India’s Nuclear Energy Push
The setting of new nuclear plants has been opposed by the local people in almost every part of the country. The exploratory mining for more uranium also invited protests from the locals in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana due to its rich flora, fauna, and a large tiger reserve. Opposition parties also joined the protests along with the villagers.
Andhra Pradesh is the largest producer of uranium in India. Locals and environmentalists have said that the processing plant next to the mine which is used to convert the uranium ore into sodium diuranate has contaminated the soil and groundwater. Moreover, it has harmed water bodies too.
Environmentalists have argued that the whole mining of uranium would lead to radioactive waste that would pollute major rivers as well as the nearby areas. They added that even the treatment before disposal can contaminate water and soil. India has been kept out of the Nuclear Suppliers Group due to its dependence on coal. That could be why India does not have an assured supply of nuclear fuel.
The uranium reserves in Andhra Pradesh were officially commissioned in 2012 and supposed to fulfil 25% of the requirement of uranium in India’s nuclear power plants. The total reserves of uranium oxide in the divided Andhra Pradesh reached about 122,000 tons in 2017.
Waking up from the Nuclear Energy Dream
During the 1950-70 period, nuclear energy received significant attention from the government’s research and development(R&D) wing. In the 1990s, it got about 15%, at a time when Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) got 20% while renewables received less than 1%, according to a report published in ORF online.
While ISRO achieved world-class launch and satellite capability, despite embargoes, the department of atomic energy found it hard to scale up the 220MWe Canadian reactor it had got in the 1960s to 700 MWe. While, the worldwide norm is 1000-1500 MWe.
The goal was to achieve 10,000 MWe capacity by the year 2000 but we stand at 7000 MWe today. After the nuclear deal, the target was raised to 63,000 MWe by 2032 but was brought down to 14,600 MWe by 2020 and 27,500 by 2032 after the 2010 +nuclear liability legislation blow-back. As we stand today, even achieving the target set for the year 2000 seems a little difficult.
As opposed to nuclear energy, India has been exceeding its renewable targets with far lesser investments. Wind and solar have been isolated from the kind of investments as nuclear energy but have attracted more interest in recent years. Investors and governments are banking on wind and solar to lead the dream of a clean energy future.
Likewise, the world has taken a step back on nuclear energy due to the risks that reactors bring with them. Events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are still fresh in the memory that has dampened the ardor of the world. For instance, the US with over 100,000 MWe declined to issue licenses for nuclear power plants between 1979 and 2012. 34 have been closed and only two are under-construction currently.
The other concern is the economics of nuclear power. Setting up of nuclear power plants is costly and the huge infrastructure face delays and cost over-runs. Additionally, operating costs per unit of electricity tends to be higher as compared with alternative sources of energy. It seems that the reactors that assure greater security and lower cost are yet to reach maturity. The stakes are high as China is investing in new reactor technologies. Nuclear energy is like a double-edged sword- it brings a promise of the impressive bounty with a vast destructive capacity.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)
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