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Updated: April 27, 2011 02:48 IST

An alternative to nuclear power

Sudha Mahalingam
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Natural gas, the lesser evil among fossil fuels, is an attractive choice.

The Fukushima crisis could not have come at a worse time for the global energy industry. With China looking to add several atomic reactors to augment its generation capacity and India planning to switch to light water reactors after the agreement with the United States, nuclear power was poised to make a big comeback.

That possibility may have melted along with the fuel rods at Fukushima. Globally, there is bound to be a slow-down in the nuclear power industry, at least for a couple of decades, if we go by the earlier experience of two accidents. No doubt, the situation today is a bit different — Asia is poised on an energy-intensive growth trajectory and is competing with the developed economies for access to adequate fuel. Conventional fuels are scarce, are depleting or are controversial. It is indeed tempting to believe that we no longer have the luxury of rejecting nuclear power.

But, even if we discount the ethical, safety aspects and other arguments against nuclear power, unlike any other source of energy, the nuclear option is also about public perception. There is the fear of the unknown which is difficult to dispel with assurances, explanations and ostensibly rational arguments. Post-Fukushima, the chorus against nuclear power has risen to a crescendo. In India, safety concerns have been compounded and exacerbated by fears of disenfranchisement and dislocation of the local population in the siting of new reactors. Self-seeking political parties have jumped into the fray to fan such fears. It would be difficult for any government to push through its nuclear power programme, undeterred by the groundswell of domestic public opinion.


What then are the alternatives to nuclear power? How do we ramp up our power generation capacity? Natural gas, the lesser evil among fossil fuels, offers itself readily. With less than half the carbon content of coal and very little of the other greenhouse gases that bedevil other fossil fuels, natural gas is a viable option for a carbon-constrained world. Abundant and less whimsically distributed than crude oil or coal, its fungibility improved by liquefaction technology, and less demanding of water than coal or nuclear power, natural gas could be a viable alternative.


The technology to explore, produce, liquefy and transport natural gas is well established. A versatile fuel that finds use in a wide range of applications such as fuel for power generation, industrial processes and in automobiles and as feedstock in fertilizers and petrochemicals, natural gas is also an ideal cooking fuel whether piped to houses or bottled as LPG in cylinders. In power generation, the efficiency factor (the ratio of electricity generated to the heat content of the fuel) could be as high as 60 per cent in a combined cycle as opposed to around 30 per cent in the most efficient coal-based power plant. This alone should make natural gas the fuel of choice for electricity generation. Its efficiency could be even higher in combined heat and power applications when waste heat from the turbines is utilised in other industrial processes. Indeed, the advantages of natural gas make it the ideal bridge fuel for the next 50 years until solar photovoltaic and nuclear fusion become affordable.

Natural gas already accounts for almost a quarter of the energy basket of developed countries. Yet, in India, the share of natural gas in its commercial energy basket has stagnated at less than 10 per cent despite major new domestic discoveries in recent years. First discovered in Assam in the late 19th century, natural gas became the mainstream fuel in India in the 1960s after major reserves were discovered in the Cambay Basin on the west coast. Acknowledging its value, as a national resource, the government prioritised its application in power and fertilizer plants along the western and northern belts and built an arterial pipeline network to service them. Today, the pipeline network of 10,000 km, and with more to be added, includes a limited national grid and regional grids in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and in the North-East.

Growth trajectory

More gas came on stream in the early 1990s, when some of the “discovered fields” of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) and Oil India Limited (OIL) were developed in joint ventures with the private sector. From 1997, India opened its acreages to international investors in exploration and production through a structured licensing process termed NELP (New Exploration Licensing Policy) of which nine rounds have been completed. Of the 239 blocks awarded to investors so far, 68 fields, of both oil and gas, are claimed to have been discovered. In fact, the discovery of the Krishna-Godavari (KG) Basin gas fields by Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), ONGC and the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation came from the acreages awarded in the first NELP round. Yet, only one of these fields — KG D6 — has commenced commercial production. India also has two operating LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) terminals which regassify LNG and supply it to consumers. Two more terminals are likely to be commissioned shortly.

Gas floating above coal seams, called coal bed methane (CBM), is another rich source of high calorific value fuel. India may have about one trillion cubic metres of this gas mostly in the Gondwana basin. CBM projects qualify for carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Recent years have witnessed four licensing rounds of CBM as well. There are 30 CBM blocks awarded for exploration. Production, which is modest, has also commenced and is expected to be ramped up significantly in the next few years. India is also examining the prospects of domestic shale gas.


The table (above) gives the average daily production from all sources.

Domestic gas demand is estimated to be at least double that of daily availability, although demand is price-elastic and linked to the price of alternative fuels. Gas markets, unlike liquid fuel markets, are still segmented, regional and continental, rather than global. Natural gas prices can vary from one-tenth of crude oil price to one-fifth, depending on the source, the type and crucially, on consumers' ability to absorb the price. Gas piped through transnational pipelines tends to be cheaper than LNG; domestically produced gas is cheaper than gas imported through transnational pipelines as well as LNG. Long-term contracts are cheaper than spot cargoes which are usually top-up options.

With global crude prices spiralling and coal becoming increasingly unacceptable, gas may suddenly find itself attractive, viable and competitive. It could greatly contribute to enhancing India's quest for energy security provided we get our act together in time and play our cards right to drive hard bargains. On the domestic front, it is essential to accelerate the pace of drilling for gas, CBM and shale and monitor effective compliance with drilling and production schedules specified in the licence and production sharing contracts. Multiple sources of supply will ensure a competitive price outcome. As for gas imports, since pipelines make much better economic sense, transnational pipeline projects should be pursued vigorously and built expeditiously. It is essential to clinch competitively-priced long-term contracts for both pipeline imports as well as LNG supplies.

Even if one or two transnational pipelines with a total capacity of 60 MMSCMD materialise, and assuming the entire supply is used for electricity generation, India can add 15 gigawatts of generation capacity in just three years, pari passu with the construction of the pipeline. Similar results can be reached with two LNG terminals with a total capacity of 15 million tonnes per annum. Not only will it take nuclear energy several decades to reach this target, but even at currently prevailing long-term LNG prices, gas-based power will be cheaper than nuclear power.

(The writer is Member, Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board. The views expressed are personal.)

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A lot more viable option to the Energy demands of India (and the world) would be to harness Geothermal Energy. The initial Capital costs incurred would be recovered since the production cost per MW is likely to be lesser than conventional sources. Also, it is a cleaner form of energy production and does not pose hazards like nuclear waste disposal. However, if we were to invest in technology and the expertise to developing this resource, it would further decrease Energy production costs and minimise distribution losses.

from:  Aditya
Posted on: May 5, 2011 at 15:21 IST

India knows wind technology. It certainly does not lack for solar energy. Wind is about the same price as natural gas and the price of PV solar is falling fast. Neither will contribute to global warming as will natural gas burning. India certainly would be harmed by a hotter planet, and especially by a dryer planet. Why not gather some of your best young minds and put them to work devising energy storage systems that would allow you to turn intermittent wind and solar into reliable 24/365 power?
You are building many new dams for water storage to replace shrinking glaciers and decreased summer water flow. Why not make some or all into pump-up storage as well? You have significant elevation differences that can be used to create high and low reservoirs for closed-loop hydro storage. Rapid progress is often made by skipping intermediate steps. I think you've seen that with cell phones. It was not necessary to wire each house and then introduce mobiles. You skipped the land line step. Why not skip burning fossil fuels and go straight to 21st Century power?

from:  Bob Wallace
Posted on: Apr 29, 2011 at 09:24 IST

Am not much of a economics guy or an oil man, but still liked the ideas presented in your article. However, I have my doubts. What about the cost of the laying of the infrastructure? I mean, the laying of a transnational gas pipeline isn't the same as laying a railway or a road network. You have to involve a lot of disaster-handling capabilities. For example, gas leaks, valve failures, etc. Maybe, even the effects of earthquakes, floods, and other natural calamities. The transmission of gas is done at high pressures, so the pipes required will have to be of comparatively higher strengths as well. Also, additional stations may be required to be built up, so as to regulate pressure, and divert flow of gas. I am sure, the planning phase will require a nationwide survey, and this survey will actually have multiple dimensions, like, the rock profile, distance from nearest populations etc. All these activities will surely eat one year of your time. To built a project of this magnitude and precision, you need manpower and other resources at your command for at least 3 years more. Then of course, you need to test these, and so on. I am sure, if we add up the time taken, it will be somewhere around 6-8 years easily. I am not a nuclear energy supporter, but multiple nuclear power stations can be concurrently made within a smaller time period. Also, I don't think the cost of developing the infrastructure has been adequately added into the equations. As a last point, I am not sure if the per unit cost of energy will take into account the cost of gas alone, or the initial cost of infrastructure as well. And the point of profit may thus be greater than 3 years.
Thus, in total, it may take more than 10 years for the whole thing to result into profit. I think, instead trying to use these resources into development of renewable power sources, like the solar and wind farms etc, might be a better idea. Another direction that we might try to look into, as someone has already pointed above, is to focus on the biogas development plans: promoting it actively, at the village and block levels. As far as our gas reserves are concerned, I am sure, they might be better used for other, say, industrial and automobile purposes.

from:  Anshul
Posted on: Apr 28, 2011 at 04:53 IST

Most of new nuclear addition was in Asia and non nuclear capacity addition elsewhere need to be considered in light of near stagnant demand of energy, Uprating and plant life extension of nuclear plants availability of large coal and infrastructure and more recently discovery of shale gas in the US. After initial reaction, China's nuclear capacity addition plans are declared to be in tact.
In India our options are limited and all options need to be exploited for meeting the needs. Coming to the gas option, for years on end we have been talking of new discoveries and also skewed allocation policy from one sector to another. When will we have adequate gas for transportation sector. Considering severe shortage of gas for fertilizer and transportation sector, with current indigenous availability of gas, it can best be adequate for peaking loads. The nuclear option using our indigenous resources is a long term plan and setting up LWRs is to be seen in context of interim solution rather than shift in the nuclear policy. Life cycle fatalities of generation per MWh are 15 times more for coal than nuclear(accidents included). Public perceptions, yes need to addressed, but there has been no causality at Fukushima because of the nuclear accident, no public exposure. Compare it with 14000 dead from Tsunami and equal number missing. While the reactors post March 11, 2011 will be safer than before on account of learning from the accident and resolve of the nuclear industry to catch up with the moving target of nuclear safety, let the long term plans be not derailed.

from:  S Thakur
Posted on: Apr 27, 2011 at 18:36 IST

One single biggest attraction is in Natural Gas the efficiency fatcor which does seem to indicate that 60 % is way above the coal-based electricity generation which is hovering around 30 %. I found the article simple , at the same time covering the most important aspects of Natural gas based generation of electricity.The much awaited insight for policy makers.

from:  Rangarajan Sriraman
Posted on: Apr 27, 2011 at 14:49 IST

Very well said.Just to add to your line of thought I would say that India could now start taking renewable sources seriously.For example during peak summer when the power demand is the most we can offload some of that to solar power;we have barren tracts of land where we can setup mini solar units.Then we could think of the wind energy.This is on the production side but then is our distribution network efficient.We definitely need to cut the power losses out of the old transmission system.Further by setting up an intelligent load distribution system we can better the usage of power where it is required the most.

from:  Manohar
Posted on: Apr 27, 2011 at 14:13 IST

I don't know much about the economics of nuclear energy and Fossil fuel but now the inevitable biofuel is the project before us. It is in no way harmful in any aspect even economics. With this biofuel barren lands will become green. All the field boundaries will become like tha walls of forts. 100% people get employment. Apart from the GOLD (biofuel), we get lot of biomass with which another gold the compost can be made. Golden compost will result in golden foog. That is the gold in these modern days as ORGANIC FOOD. In future people are not going to touch the food grown inorganically. So biodiesel is going to bring golden days to the society. Let Pongamia or Jatropa become the main source of biofuel, in India. As these trees can't grow in America, they are diverting the main food crop CORN; which is creating scarcity of food crop in the world.
Therefore for India biofuel with Karang (Pongamia) and Jatropa is a boon.

from:  Laxminarayana Paladi
Posted on: Apr 27, 2011 at 09:19 IST

However less they may be but natural gas does produce greenhouse gases so it cannot be a long term solution. Whereas, nuclear power has some risks involved but it is a environmental friendly solution, if proper safety measures are taken.

from:  Kamal
Posted on: Apr 27, 2011 at 09:04 IST

Dear Madam: Your analysis is on the right lines. Natural gas is a viable option that can and should be pursued. Very recently in the US, huge deposits of shale oil and gas have been discovered which can be profitably extracted at the current prevailing crude prices. One estimate puts the Shale Reserves at about 2.3 trillion barrels compared to Saudi Arabia's proven reserves of about 240 billion barrels. However the extraction of shale oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing is not without its fair share of controversies. Water table pollution is something that the residents of shale oil bearing states are seriously worried about. Also, in an article in today's Hindu, there is mention about serious and significant decline in gas production in the KG basin- reasons for which are apparently unknown. Liquefied Natural Gas is an option - companies like Reliance and China Petroleum are buying shale acreages and interests in the US, possibly with an intention of developing and transporting LNG in the not too distant future. Liquefying and gassifying coal is another environmentally friendly option especially considering the vast amounts of thermal coal in Eastern and Central India. The Planning Commission is estimating an annual demand of about 280 million tonnes of thermal coal in the not too distant future - most of these to be met by imports, on why we need to import is a mystery considering our own huge reserves. Besides, we waste about 20-30% of generated electricity, can we apply our minds to explore how this can be substantially reduced and which will directly reflect on our cap ex for power generation? Coal based existing and new thermal plants can still be environmentally friendly if high capacity and heavy duty filters are installed, technology for which is commercially and readily available.

from:  Dwarakanath Srinivasan
Posted on: Apr 27, 2011 at 03:53 IST
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