A Nuclear-Powered India to combat Climate Change


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s renewed pitch to the United Nations Secretary General to get a seat on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) table has underlined India’s need to harness the atomic power to counter climate change and walk towards sustainable development. India has not been able to bring down the cost of the capital extensive nuclear power projects and hopes that the NSG membership would help its nuclear power sector as exports would increase the economy of scale and bring down the price.

So far despite the Indian government’s effort to increase the investment in the nuclear energy sector and pushing the renewable energy sources, the country’s dependence on coal – one of the most polluting source of power continues. And, this reliance is expected to continue for decades to come. According to the BP Statistical Review, India’s coal consumption increased by 74 per cent over the past decade. India is now the world’s second-largest coal consumer, and according to a March report by the Brookings Institution, some 50,000 megawatts of new coal-based power generation capacity is presently under construction in the country.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has placed India at 27th pedestal in terms of share of nuclear power in the total energy matrix. The Indian establishment has put the target to increase the nuclear power from the present 6.7 GW to 63 GW by 2032 making it 10 per cent of the total power generation in the country. Domestically the Indian Government has approved development of 10 indigenous pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWR) of 700 MWe each. Presently, there are 21 nuclear power plants operational in India supplying a meagre 2 percent of the country’s energy requirements. But, the biggest impediment in achieving the desired energy matrix target is that majority of currently operating reactors are due for retirement within a decade or two. New constructions have to be accelerated.

There is no denying the fact that the access to electricity plays a vital role in improving the living stands of general population and thus an increased score on the Human Development Index. As countries develop, electricity use tends to rise; according to current forecasts, electricity consumption in developing non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries is expected to grow 60% by 2040, whereas worldwide use is expected to grow 45% in the same timeframe (U.S. Energy Information Administration 2017).

Former Indian Atomic Chief Dr. MR Srinivasan also acknowledges the link between the quality of life and the per capita power consumption. Talking to Nuclear Asia, he said: “India is third in total power production but the per capita consumption is not adequate. Nearly 250 million people do not have access to power. Energy planning needs to be meticulous and needs to take care of the gestation period for a nuclear reactor to be up and running.”

With its growing economy and population, India cannot afford to ignore this correlation. Also, an important fact is that being an intermittent source of energy, renewables like solar and wind cannot provide base-load power critical for India’s economic growth. The base-load power can only be provided by coal and nuclear energy. Presently, coal is the main source of this power by providing for 55 per cent of India’s energy need, despite environmental concerns making it imperative to look for a substitute. Whereas Nuclear energy accounts for only two per cent of India’s installed capacity.

Recently, a task force headed by former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Dr. Anil Kakodkar for the think tank Vivekananda International Foundation, examined the Indian nuclear energy eco-system and found that the Government’s incentives to the Renewable Energy Sources have tilted the odds against the nuclear energy. Calling for comparison between coal and nuclear energy due to their base-load capacity, the report asks for a “levelised tariff plan for nuclear power” and that nuclear sector is treated at par with the renewable energy sector in terms of incentives.

“In any comparison with coal, emission costs must be factored in…. Without factoring grid/system costs of renewables, nuclear tariff may appear high. A well-designed financing and pricing policy should, therefore, be put in place at the earliest,” the report titled ‘Nuclear Power: India’s Development Imperative’ said.
Dr Kakodkar has been advocating for nuclear energy. “Solar energy has emerged as competitive with low tariffs, but the infrastructure costs are seldom taken into account….One has to understand, nuclear energy is the only energy available 24/7, 365 days, unlike other renewable resources that are intermittent,” said the nuclear scientist. He further added that mix of nuclear and solar is perfect solution for Indian requirements.

The task force report says that the 63 GW nuclear power target by 2032 was adopted in 2006 under the Integrated Energy Policy. “The timelines given in the document envisaged installation of 11 GW capacity by 2010 and 29 GW by 2020. Our current capacity of 6.7 GW, therefore, represents a significant slippage.” The document says that even a 63 GW target would only represent 10.33 per cent of installed capacity by 2032, it is a modest target and far below the capacities of other countries. “For instance, China aims at 160 GW, providing 10 per cent of the electricity by 2030. The comparison with China is relevant as it has broadly the same energy profile as India, with coal providing a major part of China’s energy needs (64.56 per cent).”

The report says that for achieving this target, there has to be effort put in by various stakeholders. The government has to provide finances, as well as level-playing field to nuclear vis-a-vis coal and renewables. “The provision of Rs 3,000 crore per annum falls short of the equity of Rs 20,000 crore needed per annum to achieve the target.” It recommends that several PSUs form joint ventures with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). The government might also have to amend the Atomic Energy Act if we are trying out a model where foreign vendors are allowed to invest in the plant and operate it for large periods.
The Solar Energy has been receiving huge subsidies from the government along with easy access to loans. Presently, Solar has an installed capacity of 20,000 MW and the government is aiming to increase it to 1,00,000 MW by 2022. To add to this solar power is priced at Rs 3 a unit as against the nuclear energy that is around Rs 5 a unit.

Dr. Srinivasan also contended that for Nuclear Power Plant lifetime tariff drops faster. Talking about the reliability of the nuclear power, Dr. Srinivasan recalled the massive failure in the Northern grid in 2012 that left five Indian states in dark for eight hours. He said that “it is not easy to trip a nuclear reactor”. “The world has seen 18000 reactor years through 446 reactors with a cumulative capacity of 400,000 MWe. There have been only three accidents. So, Nuclear Energy is unforgivable, but only due to public opinion,” Dr. Srinivasan said summing up the negative public perception about atomic power.

Unsustainable Energy: a bane for world

In the fight against climate change and the economic growth, the latter scores a win every time. Therefore, despite the world’s efforts to cut down on carbon emissions, they grew by 2 per cent in 2018, the fastest growth for seven years. This was accompanied by the rise in global primary energy by 2.9 per cent in 2018 – the fastest since 2010. This growth was largely driven by China, US and India, which together accounted for around two thirds of the growth. There has been accelerated growth in the demand for natural gas that increased by 5.3 per cent, the strongest growth rates in three decades.

In a report last October, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) featured four model pathways for limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the threshold at which most experts believe the worst impacts from climate change can still be avoided. All four model pathways included increases in nuclear power generation by 2050, ranging between 59 per cent and 501 per cent.

The continued public scepticism that continues to mar the nuclear energy has been there despite the fact that it has been 65 years since the world’s first commercial nuclear power reactor came into existence. Since then tremendous progress has been made in active and passive safety features of the nuclear power units. This is contrary to various reports indicating that nuclear power could help in making energy accessible to everyone in the world and at the same time keeping the carbon emissions in check. “Nuclear power has long made a major contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and currently produces one-third of the world’s low carbon electricity while also supporting sustainable development and fulfilling growing energy demands,” said IAEA Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov, Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy.

The concerns regarding nuclear power have been renewed after the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. But, the archipelagic country has since then restarted nine of its nuclear reactors and applications are pending for re-starting several others. In fact, the Japanese government got the 5th Basic Energy Plan in July 2018 and under this plan nuclear would be a key source of energy. The Plan calls for nuclear energy to account for 20-22 per cent of the country’s total power generation by 2030.

But, in India there is still negative public opinion against nuclear power. The negative perception of nuclear power has not been helped by developed countries like the US and Germany deciding to scale down the share of nuclear energy in its portfolio. The US has cut down its coal use as it has increased its consumption of liquefied natural gas (LNG) that emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal during combustion. In Germany, the environmental groups forced the government to shut down its nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. This in turn made Germany more dependent on coal. In 2017, the share of coal-generate power in Germany’s energy mix is the same as it was in 2000. This means that the largest economy in Europe, Germany has not been able to meet its targets of cutting down carbon emissions. Germany’s is also exercising the option of importing power from its neighbours, which for a developing country like India can prove to be an expensive affair.

A recent study done by MIT titled ‘The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon Constrained World’ has unequivocally underlined that nuclear power has to be part of the energy mix in any pathway to a 1.5 degree Celsius future. The report expressed concerns at the ‘dim’ prospects for the expansion of nuclear energy in many parts of the world. “The fundamental problem is cost. Other generation technologies have become cheaper in recent decades, while new nuclear plants have only become costlier. This disturbing trend undermines nuclear energy’s potential contribution and increases the cost of achieving deep de-carbonisation,” the reports contend while calling on the world governments to provide a level playing field to nuclear power vis-à-vis other renewable sources of energy.

The importance of atomic power can be gauged from the fact that Saudi Arabia is opting for it despite having vast oil reserves.
World leaders in nuclear energy are also echoing the same sentiment. In an interview Kirill Komarov the First Deputy Director-General for Corporate Development and International Business, Rosatom, the state-owned nuclear energy corporation of Russia, said: “Nuclear is irreplaceable in achieving de-carbonization since existing nuclear power plants (NPPs) currently prevent about 2 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually. The fact remains: coal, diesel and gas emit 820 kg, 792 kg and 490 kg of CO2 per MWh, respectively. Nuclear, however, only emits 12 kg of CO2 per MWh of indirect emissions during the whole fuel cycle, similar to wind energy.”