Hobson's choice

Nuclear power for India

It is but natural that the instability in some of the reactors at the ageing Fukushima nuclear power complex, some 240 km north of Tokyo, as a result of damage caused by the massive earthquake following the tsunami on March 11, should reignite the debate in India about the wisdom of pursuing nuclear power as an energy resource.

Before we go into the pros and cons of the issue, we must first be clear about why we are considering nuclear energy at all. Energy is a prime need for economic development, even more so now, when we are ramping up our pace of development. As of now, we have a low per capita energy consumption, around 510 kg equivalent of oil per annum, which is less than half the world average.

It is estimated that at a GDP growth rate of 7 to 8 per cent per annum and an energy elasticity of 0.8 (this is a measure of the efficiency of energy utilisation in relation to growth rate), India’s energy requirement will grow four-fold in the next 25 years.

If we leave aside the traditional biomass used primarily for cooking in rural areas, most of this energy requirement will be in the form of electric power. At the end of the 11th Plan, India will have a power generating capacity of around 1,90,000 megawatt.

Another 2,00,000 mw is proposed to be added during the next two Plan periods (2012 to 2022).

As of now, fossil fuel (petroleum, natural gas and coal) accounts for 90 per cent of the electricity produced. Since our crude and gas resources are meagre (we are currently importing 70 per cent of our requirement), the bulk of future electricity generation will have to be from coal. Although we have plenty of coal reserves, a large portion is located in forested and tribal areas which throw up environmental and  social problems in their exploitation. Recall environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s  ‘Go/No Go’ diktats regarding mining in coal bearing areas.

Then there is the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from coal combustion. At the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate  Change Summit, India has made a commitment to reduce its emissions per unit of GDP 20 to 25 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. This will not be possible if we produce most of our future electricity from coal.

What about other sources of energy? Large hydroelectric power is limited due to problems associated with inundation of forestland, large scale displacement of people and construction difficulties associated with mountainous terrain. Moreover, the dependence on   capricious monsoons makes hydroelectric power an unreliable source of energy. Renewables like wind, biomass and solar power have severe limitations of being diffused, irregular and requiring very large land areas to scale up. They are more suitable for small, dispersed loads.

Suitable for base load stations

In any large power network, most of the energy is generated in what are called base load stations, each one of which can generate large amounts of steady power on a sustained basis. Such generation is possible when the fuel is compact and available in large quantities, as with fossil fuels. Sources like hydro-electricity are not usually used for base load generation since they have a rapidly depleting energy source, which is the stored water. Hydroelectric power is brought into play for ‘peaking,’ that is, those parts of the day when the power demand is more than the capacity of the base load stations.

Nuclear energy is a good alternative for base load stations since the fuel packs a punch in small quantities and it does not emit any greenhouse gases. The downside is well known — radiation risks in case of accidents, high cost of decommissioning and problems associated with safe storage of spent fuel which remains radioactive for a very long time.

In India’s case there is another problem with opting for nuclear energy. Our natural reserves of uranium ore are very low. To overcome this deficit, the founders of our nuclear power programme, proposed a 3-stage nuclear fuel cycle which would be able to exploit the vast deposits of thorium in our country in the final stage to produce uranium fuel.

Unfortunately for us, the development of fast breeder reactors, essential for the second stage, has been vastly delayed due to myriad technological problems and our nuclear power programme is still mired in the first stage with severe dependence on imported uranium.

Thanks to the embargoes imposed on us following the 1974 nuke test, we fell way behind our original nuclear power targets. At present, the installed nuclear power capacity is only around 6,000 mwe, which is just 3 per cent of total power generation capacity. However, with India no longer a pariah with the Nuclear Suppliers Group following the civilian nuclear agreement with the US, the government of India has plans to rapidly ramp up nuclear power capacity to 20,000 mwe by 2020 and 63,000 mwe by 2032, mainly through imports of plant, equipment and fuel.

If we go back on the nuclear option because of the panic generated by the Fukushima episode, that leaves us with just two choices. One is to go back to the good old ‘Hindu rate of growth’ (less than 3 per cent per annum) and learn to live with 12 hour power cuts as well as massive unemployment with all its attendant social chaos. The other is to go whole hog for coal and face global condemnation for not sticking to our commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And, who knows, climate change can be more disastrous for us than a malfunctioning nuclear reactor!

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