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Is nuclear power the answer to ending India’s energy deficit?  
   
The Nuclear Illusion  
   
An essay by Gabriel Weinstein, Ohio University, USA  
   

Since India’s independence in 1947 the country’s energy infrastructure has evolved from producing a measly 1350 Megawatts (MW) to churning over 140,000 MW (Mallah & Bansal, 2010). Despite the incredible advancement, India’s energy growth is insufficient. India’s emergence as a global economic power has spurred a voracious appetite for energy that the country’s current energy infrastructure cannot satisfy. It is estimated India will only be able to produce 1561 billion Kilowatt-Hours (kWh) of the 5081 billion kWh it will demand in 2045 (Mallah &Bansal, 2010).

Nuclear energy has always been viewed as a remedy to India’s energy ailment. Shortly after India’s independence, the government began investing in nuclear energy development and research and remains a crucial sponsor of research and development. But the optimism and belief in nuclear energy has proven to be an ill-fated illusion. Nuclear power has proven to be a hindrance to India’s development. Sixty years after nuclear power was predicted to be a major energy supplier, it provides a sliver of India’s energy consumption. The government’s fascination with nuclear energy has siphoned funds away from other, more reliable energy options. Scientific research has yet to discover a reliable way to discard nuclear waste nor make the dangerous energy generation process safer.  Until India and the global community can solve these issues, nuclear energy should not be considered a solution to India’s energy crisis.

Nuclear power has been at the forefront of India’s energy policy since independence in 1947(Ramana, 2010).  Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru formed the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948 and placed special emphasis on nuclear energy development because of his close relationship with physicist Homi Bhabha (Ramana, 2009). Nehru and Bhabha envisioned an India fueled by nuclear energy and predicted nuclear energy would be a key energy resource for India during the second half of the 20th century. In 1954, Bhabha predicted India would produce 8,000 MW by 1980 and in 1960 he said 43,500 MW of nuclear energy would pulsate the country by 2000 (Ramana, 2009). Bhabha’s grand claims have failed to materialize. In 1980 India could only produce 600 MW. By 2000 India was only able to produce 2,720 MW. Though the amount of nuclear energy produced nearly doubled to 4,120 MW in June 2009, this figure accounted for a paltry 2.8% of total energy production in India (Ramana, 2009).

Despite the government’s history of failing to meet their bloated goals, they have continued to offer lavish predictions of India’s nuclear energy future. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has predicted that India will be able to produce 350 Gigawatts(GW) by 2050 (Ramana, 2009). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh predicted in September 2009 India’s nuclear capacity will eventually be 470 GW (Ramana, 2009).

The unmet claims of the nuclear program are not the only reason to be skeptical about nuclear energy’s future. Experts have repeatedly deemed the fast breeder nuclear reactors at the heart of India’s nuclear plan as dangerous and expensive (Ramana, 2009). Breeder reactors excel at recapturing plutonium manufactured during fission and reusing the plutonium to refuel the reactor (Karam, 2006). The ability to capture plutonium allows some breeder reactors to produce 30 % more fuel than they consume (Karam, 2006).

But the lure of breeder reactors’ potential capabilities has been muted by concerns over their safety. Most nuclear reactors use water as a coolant, but because water removes a significant amount of energy from neutrons sodium must be used instead (von Hippel, 2010).  The use of sodium has some advantages as it can be used at lower temperatures and requires less pressure than water (von Hippel, 2010). However, sodium’s violent interactions with water make it a dangerous resource. When sodium escapes from steam generator when reactors leak, sodium can destroy the generator’s tubes and burn in the air when interacting with water (von Hippel, 2010). Sodium leaks at six fast breeder reactors in France and the United Kingdom have resulted in serious fires (von Hippel, 2010). A sodium leak fire at Japan’s Monju fast breeder reactor in 1995 caused significant damage has hindered the reactor for over a decade (von Hippel, 2010). The damage from the Monju fire was so severe the reactor remains shuttered.

Fast breeder reactors high level of reactivity is cause for concern. In light-water cooler reactors, the chain reaction that drives the broader nuclear chain reaction halts when the water coolant is not supplied (von Hippel, 2010). In a fast breeder reactor, the greater chain reaction that drives the reactor continues in the absence of a coolant because of high plutonium concentration (von Hippel, 2010). When this occurs, reactivity increases and can increase to the level where a minor nuclear explosion is possible (von Hippel, 2010).

Fast breeder reactors also produce radioactive waste. Sodium absorbs an additional neutron during a fast breeder reaction and becomes sodium-24, a gamma ray emitting particle (von Hippel, 2010). The sodium used to cool the reactor’s core becomes very radioactive. In order to safely dispense the radioactive sodium, fast breeder reactors have a mechanism which transfers heat from the radioactive sodium to non radioactive sodium( von Hippel, 2010). The installation of the sodium loop allowing the transfer of radioactive sodium is a costly expenditure, making fast breeder reactors less attractive (von Hippel, 2010).

Fast breeder reactors have proven to be fragile and unreliable. Conducting routine maintenance becomes a difficult task because sodium cannot interact with air (von Hippel, 2010). Removing fuel, draining sodium and completely flushing excess sodium from the reactor’s hardware can take months and drag into a years long process (von Hippel, 2010). France’s Superphenix’s fast breeder reactor was shut down more than half of its 10-year existence.  Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France have shuttered their fast breeder reactors after experiencing significant problems with hardware in their reactors immersed in sodium (von Hippel, 2010). 

In addition to the prominent Western countries failed experiences with fast nuclear reactors, India itself has experienced firsthand the difficulties of the reactors. India’s Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR), has a history littered with construction delays and safety concerns (Ramana, 2009). Construction of the FBTR was approved in 1971, and construction was slated to begin in 1976. The FBTR’s steam generators finally began working in 1993 (Ramana, 2009). In 1987, it was discovered that some components of the FBTR’s hardware were misaligned. Repairs to the initial hardware damage, spawned more hardware breakdowns and resulted in extended delays. The reactor’s hardware had to be reconfigured and excess sodium had to be drained. It took two years to address all the repairs (Ramana, 2009). FBTR has also endured sodium leaks, and instances of unexplained chemical reactions (Ramana, 2009).

In addition to FBTR’s functional problems, it has not been a quality supplier of energy. FBTR mustered 50 days of continuous output, 15 years after it was first commissioned (Ramana, 2009). The reactor has only operated for 36,000 hours or about 20% of its capacity (Ramana, 2009). Despite the FBTR’s problems, the government commissioned the construction of another fast breeder reactor, called the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR). The PFBR is riddled with structural and safety concerns stemming from its handling of sodium.

Most troubling about India’s fast breeder reactor program is the government’s tendency to underestimate the safety risks of the reactors (Kumar & Ramana, 2009). The Indian government has failed to formulate a plan that adequately accounts for accidents in fast breeder reactors or issued a policy with stringent design standards ensuring the highest level of safety (Kumar & Ramana, 2009).  The DAE’s estimate that the PFBR would release 100 megajoules pales in comparison to the German government’s calculations that its smaller PFBR model would release 370 megajoules (Kumar and Ramana, 2009).

The DAE grounds its predictions about the effects of a nuclear crisis in figures that have been dismissed by other atomic energy authorities. The DAE assumes only one percent of released energy will be converted to mechanical energy further fueling an explosion and only part of the reactor’s core will melt during a crisis (Kumar & Ramana, 2009). Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority has predicted up to four percent of energy released during an accident could be converted into mechanical energy ( Kumar and Ramana, 2009).

The DAE has also chosen structural designs that do not meet the highest safety standards. The PFBR’s design is considered flawed because of the weak design of its containment building (Kumar & Ramana, 2009). The PFBR’s containment building will not survive accidents that release a large amount of energy(Kumar & Ramana, 2009). What is most concerning about this design flaw is that the DAE knows how build stronger containment structures but chose not to install a strong structure on the PFBR because of its high cost (Kumar & Ramana, 2009).

A major factor driving policy decisions regarding nuclear power is its economic costs. The enormous cost of nuclear energy has not frightened India since independence. The government has consistently invested enormous amounts of money into nuclear energy research. By 1998, the government had already invested 52.91 billion rupees in nuclear power (Ramana, 2010). The government has continued pouring money into nuclear power research since then, despite widespread research demonstrating the unfeasible economics of nuclear power.

A 2003 MIT study on the future of nuclear power in the United States showed nuclear power’s economic disadvantages. The study compared the costs of constructing and operating nuclear power plants with coal and gas powered plants. Researchers constructed a model measuring the costs of coal, gas and nuclear plants over a 25 and 40-year period. Cost considerations of gas and carbon taxes were integrated into the researchers’ model to provide a more realistic simulation. Nuclear energy was found to be the most expensive option in every scenario (MIT, 2003).

The MIT study showed that nuclear energy plants are more expensive and take longer to construct than coal or combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) (MIT, 2003). The initial cost of a nuclear energy plant is $2000 kilowatt of electrical energy (kWe) and estimated construction period is five years. The initial cost of coal plants is $1300/kWe and expected construction is four years. For CCGT plants initial cost is $500/kWe and expected construction is two years.  Even with carbon taxes of $50/tC and $100/tC coal and CCGT plants are more economically advantageous than nuclear energy. The MIT study concludes that because of nuclear energy’s expense it is much more likely that the energy investors will rely on coal and gas as a primary energy resource (MIT, 2003). The study acknowledges that coal may be a legitimate option in countries whose governments are willing to invest in the high capital nuclear energy demands. Although India’s government has showed the patience and tolerance of nuclear energy’s high cost and long construction, it does not mean nuclear energy is the most effective option for energy growth.

When calculating the costs of nuclear power plants Indian policy makers have neglected to incorporate crucial elements such as insurance and cost of waste removal, making nuclear power appear more favorable (Ramana, 2009). The Indian government does not require insurance policies on nuclear plants because they own the plant. If an accident were to occur the government would assume all the costs caused by the accident. In the United States, the Price Anderson Act requires nuclear power plant owners to have insurance (Ramana, 2009).

India does not charge for waste removal, one of the most important and crucial aspects of nuclear energy. The DAE receives nuclear waste material from the Nuclear Power Corporation and treats the waste so it can be used for future nuclear regeneration( Ramana, 2009). The DAE does not charge the NPC for this service and provides a subsidy (Ramana, 2009). By rendering a fee covering half of the cost of disposal, the cost of nuclear power would become twenty-five percent more expensive than energy from coal (Raman, 2009).

An overlooked element of nuclear power generation is radioactive waste removal. Radioactive waste is a byproduct of nuclear power generation. Radioactive waste disposal has riddled scientists the radioactive waste used in nuclear power generation has half-lives over a few hundred years. No long-term solution has yet been formulated, though there have been several interim alternatives. One known example is the United State’s storage of radioactive waste in underground areas at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (MIT, 2003).

The methods India has used to dispose of radioactive waste are not viable solutions in either the short or long term. India harvests plutonium from processed nuclear fuel at three plants throughout the country (Ramana, 2009). After extracting  plutonium from the fuel, the DAE classifies the radioactive waste as low-level waste(LLW), intermediate-level waste (ILW) and high-level waste (HLW). The concern over waste removal is not so much over HLW or ILW. The government stores mixes HLW with glass and then stores the material at the Solid Storage & Surveillance Facility (Ramana, 2009). ILW is manipulated into gas and then stored in cement (Ramana, 2009). LLW is sometimes released into the environment and can end up in resources used by humans (Ramana, 2009). Low-level liquid waste is released through smokestacks and reaches nearby water sources. This type of waste includes small quantities of Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 (Ramana, 2009). Exposure to traces of these chemicals is not cause for serious harm as they are found in soil and water because of atmospheric fallout (EPA, 2010). However, prolonged exposure to these chemicals may result in leukemia and elevated risks of cancer (EPA, 2010). 

The Indian government has attempted to dispose HLW by burying it .6 miles underground in abandoned gold mines in southern India (Ramana, 2009).  An experiment testing the viability of this solution did not yield results the government wanted (Ramana, 2009). An alternate site was selected in Rajasthan in 1999, but local citizens protested the decision (Ramana, 2009).  After the outcry the government announced it had no current plans for nuclear waste disposal and said it could take decades before a solution is developed (Ramana, 2009). A 2004 report from government scientists outlined India’s strategy for dealing with low, intermediate and high level waste (Raj, Prasad & Bansal, 200). The strategies for low and intermediate level waste were much more detailed than the plan for high-level waste. The government said they were investigating methods and sites for underground geologic story but had not yet finalized any plans (Raj et.al 2006).

The widespread use of nuclear technology has elicited fear across the world about the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. India has been at the center of this debate. India did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and conducted a nuclear weapons test in 1998. There is fear tensions will boil over between India and Pakistan resulting in nuclear warfare. Fears about India’s nuclear weapons arsenal have been somewhat eased by a nuclear treaty signed by the United States and India in 2008 (Bajoria, 2010). The agreement stipulated India cease expansion of its nuclear weapons testing and fortifies security of its current cache of weapons (Bajoria, 2010). The agreement recognizes India’s adoption of stringent nuclear standards in the past and strong record of non-proliferation (Bajoria, 2010). However, the agreement does not require India to stop nuclear weapons production and shifts investment and energy away from more reliable and energy sources such as coal and alternative energy development (Bajoria &Pan, 2010). Had the deal stipulated these terms it would have limited the possibility sensitive nuclear material is used for further weapon development (Bajoria & Pan, 2010). Though India is entitled to create its own nuclear weapons agenda, the fear it is considering building up its weapons arsenal is concerning for its international peers.

Throughout India’s history, nuclear power has been touted as a superior solution to India’s growing appetite for energy. Though India has a long history of failing to meet its goals in energy consumption, there is still a steadfast belief nuclear power is the remedy for India’s energy dilemma. A review of historical shortcomings in nuclear policy, reliance on methods deemed dangerous and potential environmental hazards deem nuclear power an insufficient solution for India’s energy future. 

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&Bansal, N. K. (2005, September 28). Radioactive waste management practices in India. Nuclear Engineering and Design.

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8.  United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2010, October 1). Cesium Radiation Protection. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/‌rpdweb00/‌radionuclides/‌cesium.html#exposure

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The essay posted here represents the views of the author only and not of INDIA Future of Change.
This is one of the winning essays from the INDIA Future of Change Essay-Writing Contest 2010-11
as evaluated by Financial Times, the knowledge partner for the contest.
 
   
   
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