The nuclear option

Get savvy about nuclear power

By Roopen Roy

Aug 03 2008


This is the time to bring experts together to craft a long-term 50-year strategy for nuclear energy

India’s energy needs are growing at an accelerated pace. In many ways, our growth momentum is dependent upon the availability of energy and power. India has vast coal reserves. Unfortunately, much of this coal has high ash content and low calorific value. Burning coal to produce all the power is not environment-friendly. While we need to deploy clean technologies in our thermal generating plants, we can, and should, resort to every possible alternative source and, where possible, renewable energy: wind, solar, bio-mass, hydro-electric, coal bed methane and so on. But it is unlikely that the aggregate of these alternative power sources will be able to significantly reduce the burden placed on coal and gas in the near future.

The recent nuclear debate, in my view, is largely about the independence of our foreign policy, and has not focused on the efficacy of nuclear technology for generation of electric power. I will focus on the option of harnessing nuclear power for our energy needs, not on the independence of our foreign policy.

After the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986, nuclear power was in the doghouse. But concerns about global warming, greenhouse gas emission, wild fluctuations in oil and gas prices and surging needs for energy of fast-growing emerging economies forced policy makers to think again.

Nuclear power contributes to 20 per cent of the US’s electricity production. Almost all the production facilities in that country are funded by private capital. In France, 80 per cent of the country’s electricity produced is nuclear. In France, Électricité de France is the main electricity generation and distribution company. It was founded in 1946, with the nationalisation of a number of electricity producers and distributors by the communist minister of industrial production, Marcel Paul. Largely because it leverages nuclear power, France is nearly at the top of Yale and Columbia’s EPI (Environ-ment Performance Index) and emits, per unit of GDP, less than half the greenhouse gases as the US.

In June 2008, The Economist stated that, “nuclear reactors are the one proven way to make carbon-dioxide-free electricity in large and reliable quantities that does not depend (as hydroelectric and geothermal energy do) on the luck of the geographical draw.”

France has formulated a 50-year long-term plan on nuclear energy covering secure waste disposal, safety, sourcing of fuel, the regulatory framework, R&D and advanced breeder reactor development that can re-process and create new fuel.

India will need to add more nuclear power capacity in the short term in order to produce electricity reliably, safely and at an affordable cost. But in order to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes Russia, the US and France made — we would need to create a long-term strategic plan, which will look at issues like technology choice, an independent regulatory regime, open communications, fuel sourcing, R&D, safety standards and waste disposal policies.

Our Prime Minister, in his speech on the trust vote in Parliament, on July 21, said, “We have large reserves of coal, but even these are inadequate to meet all our needs by 2050. But more use of coal will have an adverse impact on pollution and climate. We can develop hydro-power, and we must. But many of these projects hurt the environment and displace a large number of people. We must develop renewable sources of energy particularly solar energy. But we must also make full use of atomic energy, which is a clean, environment-friendly source of energy. All over the world, there is growing realisation of the importance of atomic energy to meet the challenge of energy security and climate change.”

In the next few months, suppliers of nuclear power plants will descend upon India with their sales forces. It is essential that India, with the help of its own scientific, legal and industrial community, is ready with a long-range plan and positions itself as an informed and savvy “buyer”, “negotiator” and “user” of nuclear energy.

The other area that needs urgent attention is prospecting for uranium and securing fuel supplies from countries like Australia. ONGC and Uranium Corporation of India are already doing so. With over 400 nuclear power plants being planned around the world, uranium will become scarce and more expensive. However, there are two saving graces. The amount of uranium used is a fraction of the amount of coal or oil used in conventional power plants, fuel costs account for about 28 per cent of a nuclear plant’s operating expenses. Other recent sources cite lower fuel costs, such as 16 per cent. Doubling the price of uranium would add only 7 per cent to the cost of electricity produced, whereas doubling of the cost of gas would have a devastating effect on the cost of power by typically adding 70 per cent to the price of electricity from that source. India should also explore the option of buying into and acquiring firms that mine uranium.

Finally, this is the time to bring experts together to craft a long-term 50-year strategy for nuclear power.