10 PHWRs will enhance nuclear power share in India energy matrix: Srikumar Banerjee

Dr Srikumar Banerjee Former Director, BARC
Dr Srikumar Banerjee,
Former Director, BARC

Dr Srikumar Banerjee is a known name in the nuclear energy sector and has many designations as Former Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Secretary of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Director Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). Presently, he is the Homi Bhabha Chair Professor at BARC and Chancellor of Homi Bhabha National Institute (HBNI) at Mumbai. Dr Banerjee talks to Nuclear Asia about the potential of nuclear energy sector in India. Here is the complete interview.

You have been in the nuclear energy sector for a long period. How do you see the potential of nuclear power in India?

India’s nuclear potential lies in the huge reserve of thorium in the country. But thorium as such is not a fissionable material and it needs to be transmuted into U-233 by neutron irradiation inside a reactor or by spallation neutrons from a high energy accelerator. The current plan of increasing the nuclear power generation capacity will not only provide uninterrupted electricity at a very high capacity factor but also help us to accumulate more fissile materials. This will enable India to enter the stage of nuclear power production from thorium, which can be sustained for several centuries. A country blessed with such a large energy resource cannot afford to ignore its potential.

Former Power Minister Piyush Goyal said that India will have nuclear energy but it will never be the major source of energy. What are the apprehensions regarding with nuclear power?

Energy planners always look at the basket of energy resources taking various factors such as suitability for meeting base load requirements and peak demands, uninterrupted and intermittent nature of energy resources and the requirements of concentrated and distributed forms of energy under consideration. The importance of nuclear energy in providing clean and uninterrupted electricity, particularly in areas of concentrated demand, is well established. The optimum mix of different forms of energy is finally decided by the above factors and the economics of production and distribution costs of power from different resources. The safety record of Indian nuclear installations is impeccable and it is to be maintained with highest priority to dispel any fear from our countrymen.

What measures can be done to boost the share of nuclear power in the energy matrix?

As stated earlier, there are distinct roles for different energy forms and making an optimum mix needs to be in sync with both short and long term perspectives. Periodically the situation should be reviewed as the nature of requirements, reliability and safety of different energy forms and energy economics change with time.

Recently the Government has taken a major step in announcing setting up of ten new indigenous 700 MWe Pressurised Heavy-Water Reactors (PHWR) in a mode of serial production. This will enable the industry to gear up for manufacturing of critical and long delivery components of nuclear reactors in series and the gestation period of construction of nuclear power plants will substantially reduce with accompanying reduction in the cost of the plants. It is by such a technique France and USA could enlarge their nuclear fleet very rapidly in the past. The growth of the nuclear power capacity can be further enhanced through international co-operation in setting up light water reactors with guaranteed fuel supply.

The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) which is in the final stage of commissioning in Kalpakkam will open up the possibility of fuel breeding, which in turn will enable a rapid growth of the installed nuclear capacity. The energy independence of the country can be achieved when we start tapping energy from U-233, a trans-mutated product of thorium.

In the government’s plan of 175 GW of new and renewable energy there is no mention of nuclear. How do you interpret this?

There is no conflict between renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and nuclear as they have complementary roles to play in supplying energy in the distributed and the concentrated form meeting the respective demands. An appropriate combination of renewable and solar power will enable the country to provide sufficient quantity of clean energy for fulfilling the aspirations of our people in a fast growing economy without causing any adverse effect on our environment. We will also be able to fulfil our commitments to the world for the reduction in CO2 emission.

Can India ever be like France with more than 70 per cent of power coming from Nuclear?

There is no physical constraint to achieve a large share of total electricity production coming from nuclear. However, one should examine whether there is a necessity for attaining a very large nuclear share of electricity in view of the large potential of renewable energy which plays a complementary role. In fact emphasis may be placed on the development of non-electricity applications of nuclear energy in production of hydrogen by splitting of water molecules and in desalination of sea water. Economic production of hydrogen by deploying nuclear energy can indeed reduce or even eliminate the need of import of petroleum crude. Similarly availability of inexpensive desalinated water will have a great impact in providing drinking water in a very large scale.