The BJP-led Indian government has been keen on augmenting its nuclear power generation capability but the director of the national apex body for Training and Human Resources Development in power sector says lack of transmission infrastructure is the biggest impediment on this road. Director General of National Power Training Institute Dr. Prof. Rajendra Kumar Pandey lays down the challenges in the way to Nuclear Generation threadbare in an interview to Nuclear Asia.

In France 70 per cent of electricity is generated through nuclear power. In India, currently 60 per cent of our power is supplied through thermal energy. Under such circumstances, can nuclear energy be the next best alternative?

As per Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) the nuclear power capacity is expected around at 30,000 MW and that it can become the cleanest source of power. But, there is this notion among the people that nuclear power is dangerous. This despite the fact that many advanced countries are operating with nuclear power.

The government previously had the goal of 100 GW of solar, 60 GW of wind and 15 GW of biomass etc. When it was felt that generating 100 GW of solar is very difficult, they included hydro as well. So now if you look at any government declaration, it is 40 GW by 2022, which was 100 earlier. It means that nuclear has been left in totality, hydro and solar has been combined to 100 GW, 60 GW of wind and 15 GW of biomass.

Now, let us come to the topic of grid interface of renewable energy. If we can produce nuclear power through thorium which is abundantly available with us then we can generate nuclear power in abundance. Unfortunately this technology has not yet been utilised in its full capacity.

What are the major challenges that comes into play post production of nuclear power?

The first challenge is that we are still dependent on some other countries for the supply of uranium.

The way I see it, nuclear power will form large portion of renewable energy penetrating the Indian grid. As on date it is 310 GW in the grid. The biggest challenge is, if you allow penetration of renewable energy in the Indian grid, say 175 GW, there is no guarantee as to how much power will be available. You see that hydro power is only available for 3-4 months, as long as there is good monsoon and the dams have sufficient water for the production of electricity.

So the energy has to be stored and we have to go for pumped storage because there is no other solution! This is where nuclear power can play a very big role. Nuclear power, allows the power to generate very fast and because of the inbuilt characteristics of the processing device, the reactor, power can revert back also.

You have to understand that nuclear power is the cleanest power with all safety measures taken into considerations, but the grid connectivity is not yet planned. So tomorrow if the Government of India declares that we need 100 GW from nuclear energy, there is no infrastructure that can supply this huge amount. For this the only solution is High Voltage DC (HVDC) transmission technology that can carry 8000 MW at a time, contrary to HVAC. The biggest advantage is, it is fully controllable, but HVAC is not controllable.

In this regard it is very important that site selection of nuclear power plant must be very optimal (favourably the coastal belt). Not only from the angle of the installation of the nuclear power plants (NPP) but also transmitting power to the remote ends of the country.
So, ideally the transmission corridor has to be planned simultaneously with the NPP. At the same time, nuclear power must be integrated in the grid with concept of intelligent automation. So whenever there is intermittency since you cannot get the same power through the renewable energy, so nuclear power can be immediately restored in minimum time and it can match the load demand immediately.

So its control facilitates the integration of the NPP in the grid structure.

Given the time taken to construct nuclear power plant and a thermal power plant which is more economical in terms of power production and distribution?

A thermal power plant takes at least 6-7 years to become fully operational whereas a nuclear power plant takes relatively lesser time to construct. The construction of the nuclear reactor is the only time consuming affair in a NPP. So gestation period is not just the only thing. But you also have to look from the angle of delivery of the power. So planning has to be done depending on the regional requirement.

Honestly saying, nuclear power planning has not been undertaken by the government of India and I mentioned this in one of the meetings of BARC a year and a half ago. We have thorium in abundance which can be used to produce electricity but our reactors are not designed to process thorium, they are based on uranium. So the government of the day has to frame the necessary policies to that effect.

Will it be correct to say that there is a dearth of research in the area of nuclear energy in India?

Without any question there is severe dearth in research in the area. BARC is supposed to undertake this. There is no industrial collaboration with other research institutes. The only point is you can simulate but that is not all. Simulation can be of assistance to engineering but unless you combine simulation with demonstration and go with pilot project of may be 20 MW or 100 MW it is of no use.

Neither BARC comes forward nor other academic institution. There is lack of collaboration, coordination and also lack of building expertise. This is a matter of serious concern for a country like ours, which aims to be an economic superpower.

If you want to be strong in this area, you need to have a very strong collaboration domestically. I once wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to form the National Research Integration Group (NRIG) the basic purpose of which is to integrate the many interdisciplinary research that is going on. For example in the field of nuclear energy, you must have the expertise of material technology, controls, related infrastructure, safety and security etc.

In India, there may be experts who know something in a particular field but in isolation they are nothing, there should be an attempt to put all the expertise in one place at least in a coordinated manner.

As an academic what is your observation about the student community when it comes to take up nuclear engineering or any higher studies in nuclear technology?

I would say that the neither the students nor those who frame the courses are mature. They simply try to put fascinating names, just to get business. Any academic courses on nuclear technology at any level of study must be vetted by the BARC.