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Perspective on nuclear power in India

By Ibu Sanjeeb Garg

Beating the Rhetoric

In 1947, for a nation that was recently independent and had critical energy issues nuclear power seemed to the answer to all problems. It was billed as environment friendly and a technological boon. The steps towards the nuclear age had started right after independence itself when in 1948 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was set up, with Homi Bhabha as the chairman. Later on the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was created under the Office of Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Initially the AEC and DAE received international cooperation, and by 1963 India had two research reactors and four nuclear power reactors. India stood steadfast in its promise of peaceful nuclear energy uses and saw nuclear energy only as a means to solving the energy crisis.

However by the 1970’s India had been through three wars and the Cold War era had just started. Thus India too believed that a slight reorientation in its nuclear policies was required and on May 18, 1974 India performed a 15 kt Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE).The international community viewed this as breach of trust of its commitment towards India and issued sanctions against it. Even then India continued to develop its nuclear programme and exploded both fission and fusion devices on May 11 and 13, 1998.

This was viewed by the international community as a serious threat to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Non Proliferation Treaty; both deemed essential to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. India’s own defence for not signing the treaties is that it feels they favour nuclear states. India was prepared to sign them only if genuine nuclear disarmament is included as an integral part of these treaties. Since then, however, India has been able to pursue a peaceful nuclear doctrine. In 2008 India signed a civilian nuclear agreement with USA. This heralded a new era in Indian nuclear power history. Since then India has entered into multiple agreements with various countries of the world for sharing of nuclear technology. These agreements solved India’s long standing problem of Uranium reserves for nuclear fuel.

Yet, nuclear power has not been much of a success in India as it was originally envisioned. The nuclear power sector in India has suffered from myriad problems. First and foremost the performance of the completed reactors has not been very good. Their actual output as compared to their possible maximum output is about the same as for thermal and hydro-electric power stations in India (around 45%). The high capital costs of nuclear reactors dictate that they must be run at something like 70 percent or more of maximum output in order to be economically viable.

Secondly India has never been able to substantiate a proper fuel reserve for itself. There have been  major efforts in uranium exploration  which have absorbed huge financial resources but without any success. Even after thirty years, the country has not been able to find reserves of good quality uranium. With the signing of the civilian nuclear agreement, nuclear fuel could be obtained from other countries. However, for the country to be self sufficient in power a really sizeable nuclear power programme which is necessary could not be fuelled by the limited quantity of assured reserves.

Thirdly the development of technology in this sector has not produced the desired results. Although post Independence a major part of the national exchequer has been devoted to research in this sector yet problems still persist. The Indian fuel enrichment plant has still not been able to produce the desired results..

Fourthly, when the huge operating costs are taken into account and a detailed economic analysis of India’s power reactors is done then it is seen that nuclear electricity generation has no advantage over hydro or coal-fired generation. Indeed the latter two are considerably cheaper unless the electricity must be transmitted 800 km or more. Thus the logic of cheaper technology itself has been nullified.

The Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan rings as the fifth and the most dangerous problem with a nuclear power plant. It is the operational risk that runs in any nuclear programme. The Chernobyl disaster was pegged at trillions of dollars while scientists are still calculating the damage of the Fukushima disasters in Japan. Human cost of nuclear disaster is massive. Thus the human and economic costs of operating a nuclear plant are huge.

It is in this aspect that India’s recent push towards renewables is indeed laudable. The yearning for alternate energy surely can be achieved by spreading funding across a number of different scientific areas and disciplines and new alternative technologies for power generation. These include:

Solar Energy: Solar energy certainly has great potential in India. For about 75 percent of the year sunshine throughout the day is assured for most of the country. During the monsoon, cloud cover makes direct sunlight an unreliable source but the diffused sunlight available may well be sufficiently powerful to be worth using. The recent push towards  solar energy in India is indeed welcome.

Biogas: Since ancient times biogas has been used as a form of fuel in India in the form of cow-dung. However, barring a few concentrated attempts, efforts have rarely been made to produce this on a larger scale. In comparison to India its neighbours China have achieved rapid progress in this field. Instead of the traditional cow dung that is used in India the Chinese use pig dung in their biogas plant. Pig manure seems to be the more suitable material for biogas production, which might explain why the Chinese programme is much bigger than the Indian one. Biogas production leaves behind a nitrogen-rich material which is suitable for use as a fertiliser. Since the manufacture of artificial fertilizers is an energy-intensive activity, this ‘by-product’ of biogas production may represent a substantial way of saving energy.

Hydropower: India has been blessed with large number of rivers most of which are perennial in nature. These rivers provide opportunities for hydel energy generated from water turbines. The North Eastern and Northern regions of India have ample rivers which can act as sources of hydel energy. Small to medium size dams can be built over these rivers and can be linked to a grid which can ensure continued power generation and availability. Already hydel power is a major component of electricity in India, however, efforts must be made to resolve the environmental concerns associated with it as well and then move towards establishing a national hydel power grid.

Tidal power: India holds a large coastline of 7600 kms. This acts as a vast unused reserve of the tidal energy that the ocean offers. The company Atlantis Resources installed a 50MW tidal farm in the Gulf of Kutch on India’s west coast, where construction started early in 2012. This was the first tidal power project in India and Asia. Further research needs to be taken up in this regard.

Apart from these, other sources of energy like shale gas, wind energy, geothermal energy, hot springs too must be developed in India. The Indian Government has taken some major steps in this regard however further impetus is expected in these fields.

Apart from these, in the traditional power alternatives some changes must be made in terms of policy making. Fossil fuels like coal, petroleum etc will not last forever. Hence conspicuous efforts must be made to ensure sustained and judicious use of these available resources. These include measures of upgrading technology to prevent disasters like oil spilling (which wastes a lot of oil), developing better refined oil transportation facilities (since a large part of refined oil is very often wasted in the largely unorganized network) etc.

Also the most important change must be in the mindsets of people. The citizens must be made aware of suitable power consumption which would ensure a strong power delivery in the longer run. People must be made aware of innovative concepts like Green housing.

In the long run it will take a sustained government –public partnership to ensure that an alternative to nuclear power is viable and workable. The image of the dead city of Chernobyl even after 25 years of the tragedy still haunts the world. Efforts must be made at any cost to avoid such dangers and the best way out lies in saying ‘no to nuclear power.’

(The author’s views are personal)

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