Distinguished professor and Director of International Relations, Mody University, Dr. Ram Shivpuri. (Courtesy: Nuclear Asia)

The nuclear power sector in India is picking up speed but it is still far from replacing coal as the major source of power. The primary challenge is lack of adequately trained human resource to meet the requirements of the industry. Having started academic programmes in nuclear engineering in various universities in India including University of Delhi, Distinguished Professor and Director International Relations of Mody University, Dr. R Shivpuri speaks to Nuclear Asia regarding the challenges facing the nuclear power sector in India today. Here are some excerpts.

What according to you is the biggest challenge staring at the face of nuclear power as an alternative source of energy?

First and foremost it should be clearly understood that our nuclear programme as a source of alternative power is at a nascent stage and needs attention at several levels. The apex institution for nuclear research in the country i.e. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has to aggressively undertake public awareness and outreach programmes at various level so that any miss-conception among the public in general regarding nuclear energy as an alternative source of power can be avoided.

Secondly the deficit in manpower has to be addressed. For each nuclear reactor there is a requirement of 900-1000 personnel.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and all the institutes under it should come together and make a blue print so as to prepare the next generation of nuclear engineers. At a time when even Saudi Arabia is contemplating to embark on nuclear energy as a source of power we cannot sit with hands folded.

How much employable is our current batch of nuclear engineers?

Yes, that is also one of the major challenge. Each year we send a substantial number of successful nuclear engineers to France where they get opportunities in research areas. Many of them also get opportunities in BARC. Our students are very talented but the dearth of nuclear power projects so far have compelled them to move out.

But with the present Government’s initiatives we expect that the stalemate will be eliminated and with new reactors coming up in various parts of India our students will soon find employment within the country. Also there are scope of employment coming up in the Middle-East especially in Saudi Arabia which is also now embarking on a path to generate nuclear power.

What are the options available for nuclear waste disposal if the plant is not located near the sea coast?

Yes, that is a serious problem which needs to be addressed. There are several waste management procedures that are followed by the West and Japan. The problem with nuclear waste is the radioactivity. Radioactivity means the emission of alpha, beta and gamma rays by a substance. Now alpha rays have got helium particles. They have got two protons and two neutrons, then beta is an electron and gamma is a proton. They need intense energy. If the energy is very high then they can destroy anything that comes in their path. So if it comes in contact with the human body then it will destroy it. So we need to have lead sheets to protect us from alpha, beta and gamma rays. Lead’s chemical property is stable and it absorbs the radiation from alpha, beta and gamma.

The ideal way of nuclear waste management is that we should change the identity of the nucleus. There are two ways to do that, one is you can heat it intensely to some thousand degrees and then mix up with other substance like glass and the resultant matter can be buried inside earth. Some countries are already doing it. The US is putting it deep inside caves below the mountains around 200 metres deep.

The second and the most recent one is you allow the beam of very high energy particles to fall on these radioactive elements, destroy its identity to the extent that it loses its property to emit these radioactive elements.

India so far have not done anything towards nuclear waste management but have to act soon otherwise we will be in big trouble.

Often the comparison is made between nuclear and other renewables like solar or wind, how can nuclear compete with these two?

This is unnatural comparison. The conversion efficiency of solar energy is only 15 per cent, which means 100 watt of input is only 15 watt of output whereas in the case of wind we all know that it has not paid dividends as wind energy is also dependent on so many factors. So this is an absurd argument.