Context: With solar and wind power becoming more popular globally, there are questions on whether nuclear power, with its concerns about cost and safety, remains a relevant option for the future, particularly in India.
Advantages and Need for 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.
- Improved safety designs: Post Chernobyl, the nuclear industry has moved towards ‘passive safety’ designs (for nuclear reactors). Older designs required active cooling pumps, but now even if the power fails, the improved systems will gradually and gracefully control temperature.
- Lack of other alternatives:
- Currently, 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 with wind and solar power is that the energy generated is variable, and also the high cost is associated with Solar photovoltaic cells and storage batteries.
- Meet Sustainable Energy targets of India: 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.
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 risk of nuclear accidents is one of the biggest concerns related to nuclear power. 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.
- Nuclear waste: Nuclear power produces radioactive waste that can remain dangerous for thousands of years. There is no universally agreed-upon solution for the long-term storage and disposal of nuclear waste.
- 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.
- 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.
- Public perception: Due to concerns about safety and the risk of accidents, public opposition can make it difficult to build new nuclear power plants and can lead to political and social tensions.
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).
- Combination of small modular reactors and large reactors to increase nuclear power production, reduce the cost of production and achieve sustainable energy targets.
- Government should allow the phased induction of other public sector companies like NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) to get into the nuclear power sector. And, consider the possibility of gradual induction of the private sector.