Criticality of Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor pushed back further

One of this century’s great success stories could well be India, a diverse country with huge untapped human and economic potentials. India is on the go, but it will need plenty of electricity to power its rise from a developing nation to a developed one where millions upon millions of people will continue to be lifted out of poverty.

Yet India does not just need plenty more electricity; it needs that extra power to be generated in cleaner, low-carbon ways. Currently, the country’s energy industry is heavily invested in coal, which has greatly increased India’s carbon footprint and contributed to chronic air pollution. New Delhi has pledged to reduce the country’s carbon emissions significantly and many local energy experts have tapped nuclear power as a viable alternative to coal, in addition to renewables such as solar and wind.

“The concerns over climate change have reignited debate about the need for sustainable and green sources of energy to fuel India’s economic growth,” Prof. Sitakanta Mishra, an associate professor of international relations at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University in Gujarat, tells Sustainability Times.

“Nuclear power, along with renewable sources, provides our best hope for sustaining the desired economic growth in the world,” the expert says. “The same is true of India, which has embarked on a high-growth trajectory and is planning to reach its goal of a 5$ trillion economy by 2024-25.” Such an economic boost will come with increased energy needs which should be met by low-carbon sources.

“India is committed to adhering to prescribed emission levels by adopting efficient technologies and alternative green sources of energy, but its heavy dependence on coal and crude oil has prompted it to diversify its energy portfolio,” the expert says. “Nuclear energy is one among other viable sources of energy that India has judiciously placed in its energy basket. The nuclear component figures prominently in India’s energy planning and strategy.”

Already back in 2006 a team of Indian experts envisioned a target of around 60 GW for nuclear power by 2032. Yet the country will fall well short of that target since India currently operates 22 nuclear reactors at 7 nuclear power plants with a total installed capacity of less than 7,000 MW. Another seven reactors are in the works with a combined generation capacity of 4,300 MW.

“Shortly after the Paris Climate conference the government, as part of its commitment to reduce fossil fuels, announced plans for increasing nuclear capacity to about 60,000 MWe by 2032,” Ramamurti Rajaraman, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, tells Sustainability Times. “I felt even then that this was a totally unrealistic target, and sure enough the government has since announced a much lower target, yet maintaining a GDP rate of even 5-6% would require a continued increase in power generation, in which nuclear energy has a part to play.”

However, the country is lagging behind in this arena because of its relative isolation in the field of civilian nuclear technology and cooperation. As a result, India should push for greater engagements with key suppliers and stakeholders internationally to fulfil its nuclear potentials as a responsible actor. According to Prof. Rajaraman, India has been pushing for such engagement since 2008, when the US-India nuclear deal was brokered and the Nuclear Supplier Groups sanctions against the country were lifted. “Immediately afterwards, India signed preliminary agreements with three major suppliers: Rosatom in Russia, Areva in France, and Westinghouse and GE in the U.S.,” Prof. Rajaraman says.

If India is to benefit further from nuclear power at an ever larger scale, it should avail itself of the latest technologies. “India’s thermal reactor technology is so far limited to pressurized heavy-water reactors, whose original prototype CANDU reactor of 100-200 MW has been improved upon to provide 700 MW,” Prof. Rajaraman says. But new Delhi has also engaged in engaged in indigenous research, including fast breeder reactors.

By engaging in global partnerships, experts argue, the country will be in a far better position to boost its nuclear power capacity in a safe and dependable manner. According to Prof. Mishra, “The low performance of India’s domestic nuclear industry over the past decades has been down to the restrictive supply regimes and sanctions imposed on India.”

Nuclear power could complement solar power, which is fast becoming a low-carbon source of energy in a country bathed in ample sunshine all year round. “India is already one of the largest producers of solar energy and currently implementing plans to scale this sector up,” Prof. Mishra says. “But this source is intermittent and cannot provide base-load amount to run heavy industries,” he cautions.

“Meanwhile, domestic energy demand is growing exponentially as India is seeking faster economic growth,” he goes on. “India is already the world’s third largest energy consumer in total global primary energy demand, and its energy demand is projected to grow by 4.2% through 2035, and likely to double by 2040.”

Now that India has come in from the cold in terms of its nuclear program, the country can bank on far more robust growth in its nuclear capacity. Indeed, international cooperation can serve India well in coming years. “India has signed a host of bilateral deals with supplier countries for reactors, nuclear fuel and technology to smoothen and expedite its nuclear energy program. But after more than a decade of this welcoming atmosphere, tangible cooperation has been implemented only between India and Russia as well as between India and Kazakhstan,” says Prof. Mishra.

Yet New Delhi is also seeking to diversify its partnerships further. “Undoubtedly India has its own concerns and differences over the price of power and over liability laws regarding its dealings with France and the U.S.,” Prof. Mishra says. “Yet these differences can be resolved via dialogue that addresses mutual concerns amicably.”