With many countries planning to phase out traditional sources of power, nuclear energy production is gaining credence. Although India has put in considerable effort through indigenous efforts, several challenges lay ahead.
Nuclear technology has made formidable advances and is now one of the safest sources of energy production. It fares much better than its conventional predecessor, fossil fuels, in terms of curbing climate change effects and greenhouse emissions.
Owing to the destructive way in which nuclear power was introduced to mankind, large sections of the public have apprehensions about the impact of nuclear power. They cannot forget how Nagasaki and Hiroshima were carpet-bombed during the Second World War. Several exaggerated hypes on the deleterious effects of radiation brew further fear in the minds of the public. The radiation safety philosophy adopted by the nuclear community should take the rap for floating a flawed theory that “any amount of radiation is noisome,” which for the most part is untenable, considering man has evolved and is living in a sea of natural radiation. In this era of leapfrogging technological developments, the safety of nuclear power is but comfortably assured.
SOLO STRUGGLE TO TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENT
Around 1964, India was forced to review its defence strategies as China focused on nuclear power to enhance its military position. India thus embarked on a peaceful energy test in 1974, in what came to be known as Pokhran 1. The western countries did not view this kindly and created an embargo group, NSG, driving India into isolation, denying it both nuclear technology and uranium resources. Despite the hurdles, India went on to develop its version of PHWR technology and now operates 22 reactors.
The Indo-US nuclear agreement in 2005 was perceived to be the solution to India’s uranium needs. The UPA government wanted to fast-track nuclear power by importing atomic reactors. Even after several blanket agreements and unilaterally bringing all civilian programmes under nuclear safeguards, nuclear commerce in India remains elusive. The vendor company that manufactures Westinghouse reactors in the USA went broke. The French reactors never arrived. We only had limited success with Russian VVER reactors of which two are in operation, two under construction and two are under plans for installation at the Kudankulam site.
Today, the government has become wiser and has shifted its dependence to indigenously developed 700 MW PHWRs reactors. The one perceptible gain of the Indo-US agreement is that the government has been able to make piecemeal contracts with many countries for the supply of uranium, though it can be used only in the safeguarded reactors. Plutonium for fast reactors, uranium needs for strategic applications, enrichment plants and fuel for submarine reactors are met from domestic sources.
India is also developing technology to use its abundantly available thorium through its fast reactors. Dr Homi J Bhabha rolled out a three-stage programme and its success was surprisingly outstanding, despite no interest shown by other countries. We can take pride in operating the only U-233 fueled research reactor in the world. India’s technical prowess once again came on the show when she commissioned a nuclear submarine PWR reactor of 80 MW which runs on enriched uranium fuel.
EXPANSION PLANS AND FORECASTS
India now has 20 operating PHWR reactors, two US BWR reactors and two Russian VVER reactors at Kudankulam, yielding an installed capacity of around 6800 MW. India also designed and is now operating its very own PHWR reactors of 540 MW. Efforts are underway to upgrade the PHWR design to 700 MW, with innovative features.
21,000 MW BY 2030
The prediction of installation of 63,000 MW by 2032 which implies setting up 50 additional reactors in 14 years, majorly through import of nuclear power plants from the West, is naïve. Note that the draft National Electricity Plans of the GoI published in March 2017 is silent on the contribution from imported power reactors. Projections therein are based on indigenous 700 MW Indian PHWRS. Ten of these have received approvals, while work on four units, two in Kakrapar and two in Rajasthan, are slated to be operational by 2022, according to a WNA document. In respect of plans for setting up ten more such reactors, if we assume that two units are started every year from 2018 and the construction period is improved to seven years with one grid connection every two years from 2025, then we can expect 7000 MW in the next decade. Two Russian VVER reactors are planned to be completed by 2024. Further, two such reactors might be feasible before 2030. The fast reactor PFBR might even add another 500 MW.
We might view these projections with caution: there are units under construction with uncertain target dates, units shut down due to coolant channel failures and inexplicably extended maintenance shut downs “exercising abundant precaution.” Most optimistically, including the current production, the total nuclear power expected by 2030 will be 21,100 MW. Anything beyond that should be unrealistic. Sadly, nuclear electricity generation will only be a very small fraction of the total installed capacity at the end of the next decade – 3.4 per cent of 640,189 MW.
CHALLENGES AND DAYS TO COME
Being an innovative technology developed by India in seclusion, this needs time to graduate into commercial production. There are also lurking technological challenges such as change to metal fuel, graduating to commercial-scale reprocessing and crunch in plutonium resources for the initial Pu feed. The growth of nuclear power sector will also depend on a robust power grid.
TN – FIRST NUCLEAR POWER STATE
The nuclear share of power production in Tamil Nadu now stands at about 11 per cent This 11 per cent can go up to 31 per cent in the next decade, making it the first ‘nuclear state’ in India. Globally, 11 per cent of electricity comes from nuclear power. Globally, nuclear power contributes to more than 10 per cent in 20 countries, with France topping the list at 72 per cent. Thirteen nations rely on nuclear energy to supply at least one-quarter of their total electricity needs. Despite India having favourable technological parameters and a strong-standing track record of nuclear power safety, there has not been significant contribution of nuclear power to electricity generation in India. Let’s just hope things change for the better in the days to come.