Will the Nuke Deal Solve Power Shortage in India?

Power shortage and rising prices of oil are something our people experience in their daily lives. In fact the Government is facing tremendous popular anger against privatisation of power and price rise of essential commodities spinning off from oil price hike. The UPA Govt is claiming the Nuke Deal will solve that shortage. Recent newspaper ads, put out by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas have claimed that nuclear power becomes more important as an alternative to traditional power sources like diesel in the light of rising oil prices. And Congress is propagating that the Nuke Deal will provide “Ghar Ghar me bijli” (electricity in every home).

Can nuclear energy really replace coal and oil, light up our homes, run our trains and trucks?

Today, nuclear energy generated by India’s 17 reactors accounts for less than 3% of India’s total electricity-generating capacity. Even according to the optimistic (and possibly inflated) estimates of the Government, nuclear energy even after the Deal will only account for 7-9% of India’s total installed capacity by 2020. Electricity in India (and much of the world) comes from coal, not nuclear energy.

Secondly, nuclear plants take far longer to build than thermal power plants and gas-fired plants.

Thirdly, nuclear power has very high capital costs, and is necessarily centralised: i.e you cannot have a nuclear plant in each region or even state. Therefore, there is no way in which electricity generated in a nuclear plant can be used to supply electricity to homes all over the country! Logically, a few such plants can augment total electricity generation and thus help supply electricity to substantially larger number of homes.

In India, the main shortage is for power that can be generated during times of ‘peak demand’ – say in the evenings in homes. The cost of electricity is usually determined more by the capital cost of power plants (i.e the amount it takes to build them) than the operating costs. The capital cost of nuclear reactors is very high and these reactors, for technical reasons, cannot be shut on and off at will – therefore they are unsuitable for supplying short bursts of peak demand power.

We all know that a major factor in hikes in prices of essential commodities is the rise in the price of diesel, which is used in trucks which transport essential commodities. Trucks cannot run on electricity, can they? Therefore the Government’s claim that nuclear power can replace diesel and reduce our dependence on steeply priced oil is bogus.

Finally, nuclear energy can generate only electricity – obviously we will still need other kinds of fuel for transport, fertilizers, petrochemicals etc... Enhancing our own indigenous coal production and oil exploration; and the Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline are therefore far more trustworthy and real sources of India’s energy security than any Nuke Deal.

As we have seen above, nuclear energy cannot substantially reduce our dependence on oil, gas or coal. If so, does it make any sense for the UPA Government to drag its feet on negotiations with Teheran and Islamabad on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, for the sake of the Nuke Deal with USA?

Can it benefit our nation to damage or endanger our good relations with oil-producing countries of West Asia (from whom we’ll have to keep buying oil) in the name of ‘strategic partnership’ with the USA?

Is Nuclear Energy Cheap?

50% more expensive: M V Ramana of the Centre of Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, along with two researchers from the International Energy Initiative compared the costs of a nuclear plant (the Kaiga atomic power station) and a nearby coal plant. They found that the nuclear plant “was about 8 percent more expensive at the government-determined rate of return on investment, which reflects the present value of future benefits and costs. At market rates of ROI, however, it could be 50 percent more expensive.” Further, the researchers point out that this comparison does not account for the costs of cleaning up radioactive waste, though the cost of disposing fly ash is internalized in the costs of coal-generated electricity. Reprocessing is extremely expensive – the cost of reprocessing each kilogram of spent fuel from the Department of Atomic Energy’s heavy-water reactors is in the range of Rs. 20,000-30,000.

If the above is the case with the reactors we already have, the costs of imported reactors will further push up the costs. Nuclear power plants built with imported nuclear reactors will be three times as costly as coal-fired plants. The cost of electricity from imported nuclear plants will be more than Rs. 5.00 per unit as against about Rs. 2.00 to Rs. 2.50 per unit from coal-fired plants.

Further, the Government will have to provide insurance cover against nuclear accidents, and create funds to pay for clean-ups and compensation in case of accidents. This too is a huge subsidy about which the Government is silent.

Is Nuclear Energy Cleanest and Greenest?

With climate change and global warming as a result of burning of fossil fuels emerging as a major environmental threat, our Government is claiming that nuclear energy is a cleaner source of energy.

But as we have seen, nuclear energy is nowhere close to replacing other fuels: at best it can produce electricity; while other sectors of the economy that are responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions will continue to do so.

Even where electricity is concerned, nuclear power cannot be the solution for climate change because according to the IPCC Working Committee Report on Climate Change, it accounts for a very small part of the world’s supply: just 16% of the world’s electricity supply in 2005, and an estimated 18% share of the total electricity supply in 2030. For reducing greenhouse gases to address climate change, there is no other viable way except to change our way of life, promote public transport, and explore renewable energy sources like hydro, solar and wind power and clean coal technologies. The US, one of the worst offenders against the environment, has arrogantly refused to consider such solutions, declaring that the “American way of life is non-negotiable” and arguing absurdly that cows in India produce more greenhouse gases than cars in the US! The same irresponsible US is preaching that India should sign the Nuke Deal to combat global warming!

It is true that nuclear reactors themselves do not directly emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change. But the “emissions” from those reactors take the form of extremely radioactive waste that is dangerous for tens of thousands of years, is also dangerous to transport, is an obvious target for terrorists, can be used to make “dirty bombs,” and is endlessly expensive to endlessly manage.

Recent research highlighted in the prestigious British journal, The Ecologist, estimates that when the entire production cycle is accounted for, nuclear power emits less greenhouse gas than burning coal but far more than alternatives such as wind, solar, and conservation.

What about Safety?

There is no safe long-term solution to the problem of radioactive waste from nuclear plants; this waste stays radioactive and poisons the lives of future generations for thousands of years.

In the Chernobyl disaster, thousands were killed; huge tracts of land were contaminated; agriculture had to be suspended and over a lakh people had to relocated. The devastating impact of a similar disaster in India’s countryside is terrible to imagine. Nuclear technology is too complex for it to be possible to anticipate and prevent accidents.

In India, most existing reactors have experienced accidents – for example the unexplained power surge at the Kakrapar reactor in 2004; the 1993 fire at Narora; the collapse of containment at Kaiga in 1994 – and any such accident could well cause a major disaster.

Further, there is ample evidence of congenital deformities, spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and tumours caused by radioactive pollution in the area surrounding the atomic power station at Kota and the uranium mining area at Jadugoda.

In the month of July 2008 itself, two leaks have been discovered at nuclear plants in France, one of the few countries of the world which does actually use nuclear power for a substantial part of its energy needs. The French Government is trying to downplay the danger that the leaks might have been poisoning the water supply.

There are three stages of plant lifetime: the break-in phase, middle life phase, and wear-out phase. Any new reactors that are built will start out on the high-risk break-in segment. Several nuclear plant disasters—Fermi, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl to name just a few—demonstrated the perils of navigating this part of the lifetime curve.

Modern Technology of the future?

The pro-Nuke lobby is accusing the opponents of the Deal of ‘holding back progress,’ claiming that Nuke energy is the ‘technology’ of the future – and the Deal gives India a once in a lifetime opportunity to have access to the most advanced technology. This is an outright lie.

In the US, Western Europe and Japan, taken together, the total number of nuclear plants being built currently is only 3. In many of these countries (such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland), construction of nuclear plants has ceased and is being phased out. The US commissioned its last nuclear power reactor in 1996 and has not licensed a new reactor now for more than 27 years! The US nuclear industry is in a decline – and they hope that the Deal with India will give it a boost. India will be buying reactors from the US – reactors that the US itself has been forced to discard thanks, in large part, to the prohibitively high costs. A 2003 study by researchers at MIT found that the cost of U.S. nuclear-generated electricity is about 60 percent higher than electricity generated from coal.

Is imported uranium necessary for India’s atomic energy programme?

It is well-known that India has vast thorium reserves and poor uranium reserves. India’s three-stage atomic programme was supposed to eventually develop fast breeder reactors (FBRs) that could use thorium. In 2005, the DAE commissioned and commercialised India’s first two 540 MW Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) plants at Tarapur. India’s only test-scale FBR was set up in 1985; had to be shut down between 1987-89 due to technical problems; and has functioned continuously at best for 55 days at a time in 2000.

Despite the fact that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has cornered the lion’s share of India’s science and technology allocation, India’s atomic programme has not lived up to the claims made for it at its inception. In the 1950s, the nuclear establishment has projected that nuclear energy would generate 43.5 GW by 2000 – and yet it has managed to generate a fraction of that estimated capacity.

The problem is that in India, as in most countries, ‘civilian’ nuclear programmes have actually been a cover for developing bombs. India’s nuclear energy programme was derailed by the surreptitious use of plutonium from reprocessed spent fuel of the Canada-supplied CIRUS reactor for developing a bomb. The detonation of the bomb in 1974 was followed by sanctions and setbacks in terms of the international reluctance to share technology and render other cooperation to India’s nuclear programme. Today, the UPA Government says that those sanctions and setbacks can be corrected with the Indo-US Nuke Deal, which allows us to import uranium and Light Water Reactors (LWRs). But if the basic surreptitious thrust continues to remain on bombs, we can be sure that whatever potential India’s nuclear programme has for generating civilian energy will not be realised.

In any case, even top atomic scientists - P K Iyengar, ex-Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) head, A Gopalakrishnan, former head of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and A N Prasad, former director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) – have expressed serious reservations about the Nuke Deal. At stake, they feel, is the indigenous technology of PHWRs, and thorium-based FBRs which Indian scientists have been developing. Serious reservations are also there among scientists about the wisdom of making India’s nuclear programme dependent on imported supplies of uranium, thus putting it at the mercy of the US-led international cartel that controls uranium supply and prices.

The jury is still out on nuclear technology. Before investing in imported nuclear reactors in such a major way, before tying ourselves down to a dependency on imported fuel that even in the best-case projections does not promise us any substantial energy gains, India ought to consider other options more seriously.

Liberation Archive