Context: India is already the third-highest consumer of energy globally, and primary energy consumption is expected to grow rapidly with economic growth. Hence, the developmental aspirations of India require a manifold increase in per-capita energy. Also, as we aim to transition to net-zero GHG emissions it necessitates the rapid deployment of new nuclear energy capacity.
State of Power production in India and the need for cleaner alternatives:
- The total clean energy requirement to support a developed India is estimated to be around 25,000 — 30,000 TWhr/yr. This is more than four times our present energy consumption.
- Presently, the major share of India’s energy mix is thermal power. With nearly 210 gigawatts of coal capacity, the sector produces 73% of the electricity of India. However, coal is a non-renewable fossil fuel and leads to massive greenhouse gas emissions.
- India has very limited growth potential for hydropower because of conserving biodiversity, costs of rehabilitating and compensating land owners and seismological factors in the Himalayas.
- Solar and Wind are fairly good alternatives but the issue is that the energy generated is variable and the high cost is associated with Solar photovoltaic cells and storage batteries.
- Further, India has the target to cut carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030 and achieve net-zero emission status by 2070. For that purpose, India needs to diversify its energy mix and increase the share of renewable clean energy like Nuclear energy.
Brief background on Nuclear Energy Production in India:
- Process (Nuclear fission): It involves disintegrating a heavy atom’s nucleus, such as uranium or plutonium, into two or more smaller nuclei. This process releases a substantial amount of energy, which is harnessed and converted into steam to power a turbine that generates electricity.
- Fuel used: U-235 (low-enriched or reactor-grade uranium)
- Addressing burgeoning electricity demand
- Reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and help the country transition to a cleaner energy source/fuel.
- Present Capacity: Presently, India operates 22 nuclear reactors across eight sites, with a total capacity of 6,780 MWe. Among these 18 reactors are Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) and 4 are Light Water Reactors (LWRs).
Advantages of Nuclear Power:
- Clean Energy: Nuclear power does not produce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, which contribute to climate change. Therefore, it is a cleaner source of energy compared to fossil fuels.
- High Energy Density: Nuclear power plants can produce a large amount of energy from a small amount of fuel.
- For operating a plant like Kudankulam over a year — 1,000 megawatts at 90% PLF (plant load factor) —the requirement is only 25 tonnes of low-enriched uranium fuel. Low enrichment means below 5% (proportion of fissile uranium).
- Compared to a coal plant (of similar capacity) — approximately five million tonnes of coal is required. Further, thermal power plants are polluting and coal produces ash. (Ash contains many heavy metals which are detrimental to the water source).
- Firm/Reliable Power: Nuclear power plants can run continuously for months or even years without needing to refuel, providing a reliable source of electricity.
General Concerns regarding Nuclear Power:
Resistance to nuclear energy is driven by fears about safety, nuclear proliferation, or some other concerns related to its use, including:
- Nuclear accidents: The disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have demonstrated the devastating effects that can occur when nuclear reactors malfunction. Even with strict safety protocols, accidents can still happen.
- High cost: Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and maintain and thus high cost of nuclear power can make it difficult for some countries to afford.
- Nuclear waste: There is no universally agreed-upon solution for the long-term storage and disposal of nuclear waste.
- Public perception: Due to concerns about safety and the risk of accidents, public opposition can make it difficult to build new nuclear power plants.
- Proliferation of Nuclear weapons: Spent Nuclear fuel can be enriched and Nuclear technology can be used to create nuclear weapons. There is particularly a concern in countries with less-than-transparent governments that can use nuclear power programs as a cover for the development of nuclear weapons.
Challenges to scaling Nuclear Energy in India:
- Availability of fuel: India does not have large reserves of natural Uranium and must import much of its nuclear fuel from other countries. This can make it difficult to plan for and maintain a stable supply of fuel, which in turn can limit the growth of the nuclear energy industry.
- Limited contribution to energy mix: Presently, India has 22 nuclear reactors in operation at seven plants, with a total installed capacity of 6,780 MW, as well as eight reactors under construction. Still, nuclear power is only 2.5%-3.2% of India’s installed and generated power.
- Nuclear liability: India’s nuclear liability laws have also been a barrier to the growth of the nuclear energy industry. India’s strict liability laws place the burden of compensation for nuclear accidents on the plant operator, which can deter private companies from investing in nuclear power.
Also, according to the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, the liability can be shifted from the operator to the vendor or supplier in case the accident is due to equipment or material. This was the reason nuclear companies pulled out of India, made it difficult to attract foreign investment in the industry and limited the growth of the sector.
E.g., Nuclear liability continues to be the major issue behind why the deal to install French European Pressurised Reactors at Jaitapur, Maharashtra has not made progress.
- Regulatory environment: India’s regulatory environment for nuclear power is still evolving, and there is a need for clear and consistent regulations to govern the industry. This includes regulations related to safety, security, and waste management.
- Government monopoly: One of the major reasons that the growth of nuclear power is hindered is due to the Government monopoly in the nuclear energy sector (all reactors are operated by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited).
- Expansion of Indigenous nuclear reactors:
- Indigenous 700 MW PHWR, the first unit of which is already in commercial operation at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Project in Gujarat, should be the prime workhorse for base load electrical capacity addition. Fifteen more such units are already under construction in fleet mode.
- Build indigenous Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) at a large number of sites by retiring old thermal power plants.
- Speed up second and third-stage nuclear-power programme development to unleash thorium energy potential in accordance with the pre-existing plans for long-term sustainable energy supply.
- The government should allow thephased induction of other public sector companies like the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) to get into the nuclear power sector. And, amendment of the Atomic Energy Act 1962 to allow the private sector to set up SMRs.
- Given the strategic importance of the sector, the government has kept the private players out of the ambit of operation and fuel management for nuclear power generation.
- Finally, India needs a national programme guided by bold policy support that provides a level playing field for nuclear energy on par with renewable energy.