Should India consider phasing out nuclear power?

April 28, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 01:26 am IST

File photo of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant.

File photo of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Germany has shut down the last of its nuclear power plants; France, the nuclear powerhouse of the world, is struggling to replenish its stock of ageing reactors. With solar and wind power becoming more popular globally, there are questions on whether nuclear power, with its attendant concerns on cost and safety, remains a relevant option for a future that is fossil-free, particularly in India. In a conversation moderated by Jacob Koshy, R. Srikanth and Rahul Tongia discuss whether nuclear energy should be phased out. Edited excerpts:

Globally, what is the outlook for nuclear power, especially when solar and wind power are becoming far more popular?

R. Srikanth: A lot has happened in the last two years. Particularly after the Ukraine war, nuclear power is seeing a renaissance, even in Europe and the U.S. China has anyway been surging ahead on nuclear power. South Korea’s new president has changed the energy policy and committed to increasing the share of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix to 30% by 2030. Japan, which should have completely shut down reactors after the Fukushima (accident), is restarting them — 10 have been restarted following years of inspection and upgrading safety systems, and I believe that the plan is to start 10 more. Japan had to do that because it was otherwise dependent either on expensive, imported coal or on natural gas (LNG). Beyond Germany, the U.K. has said that without scaling up nuclear power, it won’t be possible to decarbonise the electricity sector.

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Rahul Tongia: A lot of people worldwide are still struggling with this question: is nuclear power ‘green’? But it is absolutely low carbon, even when you look at life-cycle costs. A lot of countries are saying that nuclear would be good to have in the mix because it is firm, dispatchable power, while wind and solar are intermittent or variable. (Firm power is power that can be sent to the electric grid to be supplied whenever needed.) And what do you do if you get days and days of no-wind spells? Some people say batteries will be the answer. But batteries are very expensive and have an environmental impact. There is no free lunch.

I think a lot of scholars and people who care about the environment are just concerned that when Germany shut down its plants prematurely, from an environmental perspective all the carbon in the cement (for construction) is already sunk and yet you’ve shut it down before its life term. It would be the same sort of thing for India or any other country. Using an asset, whether a car or a power plant, till the end of its life is probably the best thing you could do for the environment, unless something can displace it entirely. From the global perspective, the first question is, do you have an alternative that would let you say, ‘I don’t need nuclear.’ As I mentioned, most wind and solar is variable. Therefore, how do you get your firm power? A lot of countries moved away from coal, but they went to natural gas, not renewables. I think that’s an important point that all of us need to keep in mind.

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Resistance to nuclear energy is also driven by fears about safety, nuclear proliferation, or some other concern. Some of those remain, but a lot has been diminished, partly post-Ukraine but also because the nuclear industry is moving towards ‘passive safety’ designs (for nuclear reactors). Older designs required active cooling pumps, but you can now have systems which, even if the power fails, will gradually and gracefully control temperature, waste-heat and things like that. The worst sort of accident in history, Chernobyl, was a design that will never get repeated again. So, these (passive safety designs) are standard, including at Kudankulam. Is anything fail-safe? No, but then you have to put it in context — there are coal mine disasters, transport disasters, local air pollution.

Another challenge is cost. And that is an area where nuclear has yet to fully prove itself, partly because of cost overruns and partly because of other things. But now we’re looking at new designs like small modular reactors. And there is a belief that this will address the cost structure quite a bit going forward.

What about radioactivity from spent fuel? While it might be that people are slightly less fearful of nuclear power, it doesn’t reflect in questions surrounding nuclear liability. Nuclear liability continues to be the major sticking point behind why the deal to install French European Pressurised Reactors at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, hasn’t made progress.

R. Srikanth: One of the things that we have to realise is what is the amount (of fuel) that we are actually talking about. If you look like at a plant like Kudankulam, for operating one of these units — 1,000 megawatts at 90% PLF (plant load factor) — what you require over a year is only 25 tonnes of low enriched uranium fuel. Low enrichment means below 5% (proportion of fissile uranium). Compare that to a coal plant (of similar capacity) — you’ll require approximately five million tonnes of coal, and coal produces ash. And if you look at many of the power plants in the country, they have huge ash ponds. In some cases, the size of the ash pond is bigger than the size of the plant. Ash also contains many heavy metals, which are detrimental to the water source. Regarding nuclear liability, it is not money, but that (in case of an accident), the supplier of components to the nuclear plant is exposed to various liabilities, including criminal liability. That is something which basically no Western company will accept.

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India’s nuclear plan is premised on working around its limited supply of enriched uranium. Elsewhere, wherever nuclear has taken off, there is no real issue of accessing nuclear fuel. However, nuclear power is only 2.5%-3.2% of India’s installed and generated power. Is it time that we revisit some of the assumptions under which the nuclear programme, the civilian nuclear programme particularly, has been supported so far?

R. Srikanth: India has very limited growth potential for hydropower because of conserving biodiversity and the costs of rehabilitating and compensating land owners. And, of course, the seismological factors in the Himalayas. The alternative to coal is nuclear power. We’ve got nearly 210 gigawatts of coal capacity, and it produces 73% of electricity of India, whereas nuclear is only around 3.2%. From our research into the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and how it works, we can conclude that business as usual cannot continue. One of the major reasons that growth of nuclear power is hindered is because we have a monopoly (all reactors are operated by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited) and the first thing that must happen is the civilian nuclear programme. I’m not saying it should be privatised, but at least you should allow other government companies like the NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) to get into nuclear on their own. If we hope to achieve ‘net zero’ (no net carbon emissions by 2070), we need something like 100 gigawatts by 2050. We’ll need a combination of small modular reactors and large reactors, but it cannot be done by one company. It has to be done by multiple companies.

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Rahul Tongia: It’s inevitable that you need to be open to a range of options. The key word here is portfolio. Energy, especially electricity but energy overall, is not going to be the one thing that solves all our problems. It’s going to be a mix of supply side and demand side. It’s not that if I just add solar, all problems are solved. Some years ago, we used to lament, ‘Oh, if only solar were cheaper.’ Well, it is pretty darn cheap now but doesn’t solve our problems. ‘Oh, if only batteries were cheaper!’ Well, they will get cheaper over time, but that’s not enough. So, we need a portfolio of technologies within the nuclear sector and outside the nuclear sector. And what these need to do at a design level is interplay well.

So, India should never consider phasing out nuclear power?

Rahul Tongia: Let me clarify. Your policy should be about enabling frameworks to let all technologies play. The value that nuclear provides is of being low carbon, firm, reliable, etc. If those do work out competitively as having that value, they will automatically grow. I am not in favour of targets that say, ‘Thou shall be x percent.’ Well, what if something else came up? What if prices change? What if the technology changed? The government, or for that matter anybody, shouldn’t be taking technology bets, per se, but policy should be about frameworks and enablement. That is where things like the civil liability or support mechanisms matter. I’m neither saying nuclear must grow nor that we must kill nuclear because it hasn’t grown. If nuclear didn’t scale up to its potential, on the one extreme, you could say let’s kill it. On the other extreme, you would continue with it. Or you would figure out why it didn’t grow and if it doesn’t perform well, its share in the energy mix will fall.

R. Srikanth is Professor and Dean, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and head of the Energy, Environment and Climate Change Programme; Rahul Tongia is Senior Fellow, Center for Social and Economic Progress, New Delhi, where he leads the Energy, Natural Resources and Sustainability Group

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