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The Nuclear Story: A Broader Perspective

STORY

Nuclear power: Expensive, hazardous and inequitable

The Hindu, June 7, 2017

The article, written by M.V. Ramana and Suvrat Raju, two physicists associated with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, argues that the government’s recent decision to clear the construction of ten 700MWe Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) must be scrutinised carefully. The writers claim that, given the adverse circumstances that the nuclear sector finds itself in globally, as well as ongoing reductions in costs of renewable energy, these PHWRs are best not built and the project abandoned. The article also dismisses India’s stated commitment to sustainable development by arguing that such development cannot be fuelled by nuclear energy, which is “expensive, hazardous and antithetical to equity”.

THE PROBLEM

This article, as most others written from a perspective predisposed to hostility towards the idea and existence of nuclear power, takes recourse to a one-sided approach to the issue. As such, on the one hand, it reiterates longstanding activist arguments against nuclear power — safety, affordability, negative public perceptions, etc — most of which do not stand factual scrutiny. On the other hand, it exploits selective data and developments — domestic and foreign, such as the Westinghouse and Areva bankruptcies or the recent Swiss decision to phase out nuclear power — to criticise the cabinet decision on PHWRs. To understand India’s emphasis on nuclear power, we need to look at the complete fact-file.

THE FACTS

Nuclear Logic:

  • India needs nuclear power to diversify its energy basket, reduce its carbon imprint and fulfil its climate change obligations.
  • India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) pledge is 40% of its cumulative installed capacity in power coming from non-fossil sources by 2030. This can be met only if we can expand our nuclear capacity through both heavy investment in nuclear plants as well as building and operating our own reactors.
  • Oil and gas prices are affected by global geopolitical and economic developments; hydel projects are limited by geography; coal cannot be used at current rates forever if India is to reduce its carbon footprint and preserve the environment. Nuclear power, on the other hand, generates no carbon dioxide.
  • India’s energy needs are only going to increase. Our consumption demand has more than doubled since the turn of the century and our electricity production needs to quadruple by 2040 to meet demand (World Energy Outlook 2015, published by IEA).
  • By strengthening its energy mix via nuclear, hydro and renewable energy, India is trying to not only maximise power supply but also adopt a responsible approach to development by increasing the use of clean energy.
  • Nuclear reactors have high initial capital expenditure but low operating costs. As a result, in the long run, nuclear power is cheaper than thermal power in terms of money, health and environment.
  • While India is expanding its renewables basket, such as solar power, at a revolutionary pace thanks to new initiatives, there is no harm in expanding the nuclear sector also as, once its reactors are operational and working at optimum capacity, a nuclear plant becomes a heavy-duty power generator.
  • India’s domestic supplies of nuclear fuel are inadequate and lack of fuel had constrained our nuclear programme for decades. But after the Indo-US nuclear deal, fuel supply no longer remained a problem and our nuclear plants witnessed an efficiency improvement from 50% to the current 80% on average.
  • As a result, it is more feasible for India to build new reactors now. Moreover, we are also adding new reactors to existing and operational sites, such as Kudankulam, which allows reactors to be built faster.
  • Additionally, given India’s meagre uranium reserves but massive thorium resources (25% of total global reserves), its indigenous and unique reactor R&D that has been using all three major fissionable materials (uranium-235, plutonium, and uranium-233) is also programmed to make use of the thorium.
  • Finally, the anti-nuclear rhetoric on safety usually revolves round the few major nuclear-related accidents — such as Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Fukushima. It is overlooked that these were highly critical, abnormal cases and not the norm. For instance, Chernobyl was a case of flawed design compounded by poorly trained personnel. Although Fukushima Daichi housed First Generation reactors about to be decommissioned, the investigation found that it was less the natural catastrophe and more a human failure to prepare for largescale emergencies that caused the meltdown. Third and Fourth Generation reactors are designed to withstand even air crashes.

Decision on New PHWRs:

  • Total share of nuclear power in India is 3.5%. For climate obligations and diversification of energy basket, this must increase. India also wants to triple its nuclear power capacity by 2025. The decision on clearing the 10 new PHWRs must first be seen in this context.
  • India’s installed nuclear capacity is 6,780 MW from 22 operational plants. The new reactors will add another 7,000 MW, which itself is more than the current total capacity.
  • The push for these 10 reactors also came against the backdrop of uncertainty over imported Light Water Reactors (LWRs), even if such international developments did not cause the decision. Also, these reactors will be cheaper than imported ones.
  • PHWRs used in India range from 220 to 540 MWe. The addition of 10 new indigenous 700 MWe reactors is a big leap for NPCIL and a big boost to the domestic nuclear industry.
  • While the industry estimates manufacturing orders of approximately Rs 70,000 crore, the project is also expected to generate 33,000-plus jobs in direct and indirect employment.
  • The new reactors will be built in fleet mode to maximise cost effectiveness. It is also a flagship Make in India project.
  • India’s top nuclear scientists have said this project will bring India to the “frontline of the global nuclear manufacturing and supply chain”.
  • Tangible long-term benefits of nuclear power — seen in its efficient baseload power, climate friendliness, push to economic development, low likelihood and small scale of accidents — outweigh its costs.

India, as can be observed from the facts stated above, needs to rapidly expand its energy mix and at the same time reduce its carbon footprint and meet its international climate obligations. Nuclear power is an essential component of that diversified energy basket. It is also clean, relatively safe and cheaper in the long term in money, health and environmental terms, even if its initial capital costs are high. India’s current nuclear output is a very small fraction of what it needs to generate to meet the above needs. The cabinet decision to approve 10 new PHWRs must be analysed in this context. Given that the reactors are bigger than what India currently uses and whose total capacity will be greater than the country’s full capacity at present, the decision is a big boost for the domestic industry and the economy. It must also be remembered that this is a fully indigenous project.

Some of the specific objections raised by the article are also refutable. For instance, even if thermal and hydel power are currently cheaper, coal cannot be a long-term answer to India’s energy and environmental demands — demands that will only increase. Hydro-electric power capacity is by default limited by geography and terrain. Natural gas and oil prices are subject to the vagaries of global developments. Also, it is a fallacy to dismiss the job-generating capacity of this project by saying the return is not adequate given the capital expenditure. Nuclear power projects lead to economies of scale over time, as production increases, and the jobs expected will be both direct and indirect and the number is not insignificant when we take into consideration the skilled human resources needed in the nuclear industry. After decades of constraints, India’s nuclear power industry is finally free to expand and the time is opportune too, helping India manage its switch to cleaner sources of energy.

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