Why India Needs the Power of the Atoms

‘If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One… I am become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds’ 

-J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita at the Trinity test in Mexico, on the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

The Global Energy Crisis

From electric razors to cars, from mass production lines to our magnificent city skies, we consume energy to power our lives. In any functional society, the management and use of energy is inevitable. Energy is used in the industrialised world for agriculture, transportation, waste processing, information technology and communications. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th century changed the way we live and work – transitioning manual and animal-based labour to machine-based mass-scale production. Powered by coal, iron and the steam engine, the world’s economic prowess and living standards multiplied several-folds, especially in Western Europe and North America. The era of mechanisation had begun.

Since the Industrial Revolution, man nourished his hunger for economic growth and prosperity, building factories to manufacture everything from airplanes to dishwashers, making his life manifold easier. The expansion was powered by easily available, cheap coal and oil, and it seemed the party would never end.

Then 1973 came and all that changed. Responding to a US decision to re-supply weapons to the Israeli military, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo and announced cuts in production. The market price of oil shot up substantially, from $3 to $12 a barrel, and the world financial system reeled under pressure resulting in the 1973-74 stock market crash. The era of cheap oil was over, and it provided the world its first warning that it could no longer take cheap oil supply for granted. People suddenly became sensitive to the price of fuel, and American ‘gas-guzzlers’ produced by Detroit’s ‘Big Three’ lost huge market share to the fuel-efficient cars from Japan. By 1979, oil markets had peaked at $ 80 a barrel.

The world reeling under oil prices

Into the 21st century, man continues to face challenges in satisfying his ever-growing thirst for energy. As countries develop, industry, rapid urbanisation and better living standards demand higher use of energy, most often of electricity and oil. The ‘New World’ of fast-developing economies like China and India, with GDPs expanding at over 8% per year, are demanding increasing amount of oil. In 2008, oil prices hit an all-time high of $147 a barrel. As oil becomes scarce, companies have had to go deeper into offshore drilling beds, searching for the ‘black gold’ in more challenging and difficult environments, driving up the cost of oil extraction. It is largely believed that the production of coal and oil would peak in the 21st century.

India’s Energy Deficit

India, home to 17% of the world’s population accounts for a mere 3.4% of global energy consumption, one of the lowest per-capita energy consumers in the world. Energy demand has grown by 3.4% per annum over the last 50 years, even as 35.5% of its people live without access to electricity. The generation, transmission and distribution of electricity is generally handled by public-sector enterprises, whose red-tape and inefficiency have led to a shortage of electricity, as demand outstripped supply by 7-11%. Power cuts are common throughout India even in its biggest cities, a huge limiting factor to its economic growth potential. Electricity losses in transmission and distribution are among the highest in the world, ranging between 30-45%. Electricity theft is common across the country, and is estimated to amount to 1.5% of its trillion-dollar plus GDP.

About 56% of the electricity consumed in India is generated in thermal power plants, 19% by hydroelectric power plants and a paltry 4% from nuclear power. In recent years, India’s energy policies have dramatically changed responding to the needs of an increasingly hungry economy growing at 8% a year. In June 2012, the total installed power generation capacity in India stood at 205 MW, vastly lagging behind China’s ~900 GW. India’s power demand is expected to shoot up to 950 GW by 2030. As India plays catch-up to China in the race to economic superpowerdom, power infrastructure will play an important role in deciding who finishes first. Availability of cheap and abundant source of energy has been one of the important factors in propelling China ahead, and India will have to seriously upgrade its power supply infrastructure to ensure sustained growth.

India has been heavily dependent on imports to satisfy its ever-growing thirst for oil. Several Indian companies have begun a massive hunt for oil and natural gas across India, but have had limited success. Coal satisfies a majority of India’s energy needs, but Indian coal is of poor quality with high sulphur content which makes it unsuitable for generating electricity. The recent ‘Coal-gate’ scam and the fact that most coal mines in India are under the state-owned Coal India hasn’t helped matters. As the world has awakened to the threat of global warming, there has been increasing international criticism and pressure on emerging economies like India to limit their carbon emissions, a large contributor of which is coal based power plants. Natural gas, which was touted to be the next big thing via Reliance’s KG-D6 basin discovery has seen output fall, and many gas-powered plants are running way below capacity for want of fuel.

The fuel for India’s growth engine is running out!

As it becomes clear that conventional sources like coal and oil can no longer power India’s economic dream into the future, the country has started to look at other sources of power to augment its supply. India has high solar insolation and a dense population, an ideal combination to use solar power. A National Solar Mission was launched in 2009, with plans to generate 1000 MW of 2013, and upto 20,000 MW by 2020. Solar powered equipments are being made compulsory in government buildings. Several cities have also made installation of solar powered heaters on the rooftops of new buildings mandatory. However, the cost of solar power on a commercial scale is prohibitive on account of land scarcity and initial costs of deployment. Furthermore, it is doubtful that solar power generation can be scaled up significantly enough to contribute a meaningful portion of India’s energy needs.

India has also looked to wind energy since the 1990s, which has grown significantly in the last few years to a capacity of 11,800 MW currently. India has the 5th largest wind generation capacity in the world. The short gestation period in wind power generation, alongwith the increasing feasibility and performance of wind power systems has made wind energy the preferred choice among renewable sources of energy in India. The Indian Government is trying to encourage the setting up of wind energy farms through tax breaks and financing through the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (Ireda). However, the initial cost of setting up wind turbines is prohibitive. Rotor blades are noisy and land scarcity is a huge cost factor in a densely populated country like India.

Wind energy is a clean source, but is not enough to quench India’s thirst for power

While renewable sources of energy may be the fuel of the future, they are unviable for large-scale commercial production using current technology. Furthermore, without the support of subsidized financing and tax breaks from the Government, many existing projects would not have been possible. It is clear that to solve the problem of India’s chronic energy deficit, the country would have to look elsewhere.

Nuclear Power as an Option

The nation that gave the world the Bhagavad Gita had largely stayed away from nuclear power, which contributes only 4% of India’s total power generation capacity (compared to 78.8% in France). As India was outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it was excluded from trade in nuclear plants or materials, which severely hampered its development of civilian nuclear energy as India had to develop and source all materials indigenously. The Indian Government was forced to support and actively fund the development of domestic nuclear technology, driving up capital and operating costs while unable to take advantage of developments in global standards in safety. In 1987, the Government of India set up the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (‘NPCIL’) under the Department of Atomic Energy with the objective of ‘undertaking design, construction, operation and maintenance of nuclear power stations for the generation of electricity’. All of India’s 20 nuclear power plants generating 4,560 MW are operated by the NPCIL.

Dr. Homi Bhabha, the architect of India’s nuclear programme envisaged a 3-stage nuclear power programme using indigenous fuel. The first stage consists of Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (‘PWHRs’). India has 17 operational PWHRs generating a majority of its nuclear power with 6 more under construction with a planned capacity of 5,600 MW. The second stage consists of Fast Breeder Reactors (‘FBRs’), using plutonium based fuel, which can be obtained by reprocessing the spent fuel from PWHRs. A prototype 500 MW FBR is in the final stages of construction at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. The third stage system, using thorium and uranium fuel such as Advanced Heavy Water Reactor has been taken up for technology development.

India’s domestic reserves of uranium are estimated to be around 80,000 to 112,000 tonnes, around 1% of global uranium reserves; large enough to supply India’s commercial and military reactors. It is estimated that India’s nuclear power plants consume about ~478 metric tonnes of uranium per year, and even if India were to quadruple its nuclear power capacity, this would consume at most 2,000 tonnes a year. Accordingly, based on its commercially proved reserves, a 40 to 50 year supply of fuel is guaranteed from domestic sources. As India’s three stage nuclear programme develops, the fuel supply could be stretched out many times over using breeder reactor and reprocessing technologies.

On July 18, 2005, then US President George W. Bush along with Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and to place such civil facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, and in exchange, the United States agreed to work towards full civil nuclear cooperation in India. The agreement took more than 3 years to pass as it required the amendment of US domestic laws as well as international agreements. However, in September 2008, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (‘NSG’) granted the waiver to India, allowing it access to civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. The Indo-US Nuclear Deal (popularly known as the 123 Agreement) is seen as a watershed in Indo-US relations since the waiver makes India the only country with a known nuclear arsenal which is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but is still allowed to carry on nuclear commerce with the world.

The 123 Nuclear Agreement was a landmark deal in nuclear energy

Nuclear energy received a big boost when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that nuclear power will provide 20,000 MW of energy by 2020, up from 4,780 MW today; adding that the target was ‘modest’ and capable of ‘being doubled with the opening up of international cooperation’. Following the NSG waiver, India quickly signed bilateral deals for nuclear energy technology cooperation with France, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. India also has uranium supply agreements with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Argentina and Namibia.

Nuclear power contributes 15% of the world’s electricity supply. Nuclear energy has been so sustainable because it produces virtually no air pollution or carbon footprint, abundant fuel is available and the risks of storing waste are small and can be further reduced through latest technologies, and operational safety records are excellent relative to other kinds of power stations. As a nation that must strive for energy independence, India must make the most of nuclear energy technology. Uranium and thorium, important raw materials are abundantly available in India. With the availability of advanced nuclear technology from the likes of the United States, France, Canada etc., India’s nuclear programme can take its quantum leap forward.

However, nuclear power has its set of detractors. Many believe that it poses several threats to people and the environment. Process, transport and storage of nuclear radioactive waste are dangerous, and must be handled with great caution. Nuclear materials and waste pose the risk of nuclear proliferation and in the wrong hands, can be used to make a ‘dirty bomb’ while nuclear reactor facilities are ‘sitting ducks’ for terrorist attacks. Uranium mining poses risks to the environment and mine-workers alike. The Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine killed 56 directly, while causing an estimated 4,000 cases of cancer. Radioactive fallout rendered the region inhospitable for years. The recent Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, widely showcased by global media has led several countries to rethink their nuclear energy policies. India has seen several nuclear accidents, including reactor problems that have required shut downs for years as well as multi-million dollars in repairs costs.

In all fairness, many of the concerns about nuclear power plants are misplaced. There have been far more accidents and on-the-job deaths in other kinds of power stations than nuclear ones. The Scientific American has reported that the average coal based power plants emits 100 times more radiation then a comparatively sized nuclear power plant in the form of toxic waste known as fly ash. Many scientists believe that considering the environmental impact of other conventional sources of energy like coal and oil, nuclear power is the cleanest and safest source of power available to us.

The Government of India has thrown its weight behind nuclear power. The Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in Maharashtra, envisaged by NPCIL in cooperation with the French engineering giant, Areva is a 6 X 1650 MW reactor complex with a capacity of 9,900 MW, making it the largest nuclear power generating station in the world by net electrical power rating. Powered by third generation Evolutionary Pressured Reactors and announced in the December 2010 by the Prime Minister along with French President Nicholas Sarkozy, this reactor complex will be a watershed in India’s nuclear programme. Several nuclear power projects are being envisaged in the thin strip of coastline along Maharashtra, with a planned capacity of 33,000 MW.

The Tarapur Nuclear power plant

However, many villages along the proposed sites are protesting the land acquisition, citing concerns regarding radiation and the effect of hot water on fisheries and their livelihood. Jaitapur is located on an earthquake prone zone, and the danger of an accident has seen several environmentalists oppose the project. It is clear that the people of India haven’t fully accepted nuclear power as a safe technology.

Conclusion

Nuclear power has its set of proponents and opponents, each citing statistics, incidents and economics to further their case. However, the truth of the matter is, India doesn’t have much of a choice regarding its energy policy into the future. With coal and oil being dirty and getting increasingly expensive, it must turn to other sources of energy. But, solar and wind energy are not commercially viable to satiate the hungry needs of a growing India. Energy conservation is a noble need of the hour; but it cannot be the lone solution to the problem: ‘One cannot attain greatness through cost reduction’.

While vested interests may delay or derail projects, over the long-term it is Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hands’ of economic realism that shall guide India’s energy policy decisively towards nuclear power. To quench its present thirst for power and to drive its trillion dollar economic engine into high gear, India must look to the atoms for clean, sustainable and cost-effective power.

A scenic shot of a nuclear reactor

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