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Is nuclear power the answer to ending India’s energy deficit?
 
Nuclear power -
A reliable energy source for the future
 
An essay by Vivek Thacker, University of Cambridge, UK
 
   
India is on the move. Indeed, one of the primary reasons why we are even having this competition is a result of the 8% plus annual GDP growth over the last 8 years. This growth has been driven by strong domestic demand, and with that electricity consumption per capita has doubled from 355KWh in 2000 to 720kWh by 2009. This is a huge increase, but in absolute terms is puny when compared to other countries globally, being only 20% and 3% of the figures for China and America respectively. Juxtapose this with the deplorable fact that about 400 million people are yet to be connected to the electricity grid and the writing is on the wall. In this regard it’s best to compare ourselves to China but it’s already clear that demand is going to soar in the coming years.

On the supply side, the power generation figures are much gloomier, and most years hover stubbornly around the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ of 3%. Understandably power generation requires huge capital investment; even so, the pace of growth has been extremely tardy over the past 20 years. In many states (Maharashtra being the notable example) reasonably healthy power surpluses from the early 90s were allowed to stagnate into power deficits by the end of the decade, setting the stage for a huge uphill struggle to cope with the demand surge of this past decade. The net result of all this is that overall national power deficit is around 12% consistently, with no major state being power surplus.

There can be no doubt as to what is responsible for this; poor planning and lack of foresight on the part of the Government. Thankfully, it appears to have finally woken up to the challenge, and there are hasty efforts being made to meet the XIth plan revised target of 62,500 MW with a far more ambitious target for the XIIth plan. Given this changed outlook on the part of the Government, I think this is an excellent opportunity to not only work for the short term goal of bridging the deficit, but also looking further ahead and envisioning scenarios for 2020 and beyond.

Let’s take a step back and see exactly how we get our power from. At the moment, the predominant source is thermal – a kinder word for what are mostly coal-fired plants. Totally these contribute 64.6% of the total installed capacity. The other major contributor is hydroelectric powerwhich provides another 22.6% of total power. Both are hardly what you’d term green; coal powered plants , especially in India are inefficient and polluting whereas large scale hydroelectric projects tend to cause large scale environmental changes as well as trigger population shifts. Finally there is nuclear and renewables, which come in at 4.6% and 7.2% respectively.

Given the scale of problems associated with large scale hydroelectric projects, it is going to extremely difficult (and not advisable from an environmental viewpoint either) to attempt to build huge hydroelectric projects. Indeed, most of the current capacity has been installed in the immediate years post-independence and there has been little progress with large scale projects in the last twenty years (the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the movements against the Tehri dam come to mind here). It is quite clear therefore, that apart from small scale hydroelectric projects that do not require massive dams on rivers, it is going to be very difficult to raise the conventional hydroelectric generation capacity by as much as is required by the growth in demand discussed above.

It is quite an accepted view that the renewable energy sources like wind, tidal and geothermal just will not have the ability to compensate for current fossil fuel generation. Wind and waves could only be used at the coast or in elevated areas in the mountain ranges, and apart from the four monsoon months, wind patterns across the subcontinent are rather subdued. On the other hand, that very same monsoon ensures that India is one of the sunniest nations in the world. There is indeed a good case for solar energy, and the Government through the National Solar Mission already has a very ambitious plan to generate 20,000MW of solar energy by 2020. Sure, solar cells are a tremendously active research area and there are improvements being made every day. But even taking this into account, it is not conceivable that solar cells, even when pushed to the limit, will replace conventional sources of energy in even the medium term. Compare the ambitious 20,000 MW goal for 2020 with the overall target of 62,500 MW for 2012 and the scales are clear. While solar energy could prove to be significant locally to states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, on a national level, solar energy cannot be our main source of energy for the next 20 years or so.

This basically leaves two options for policy makers in India; continue with our traditional reliance on thermal power (with a new emphasis on gas based plants) or consider taking a bolder move and placing more emphasis on nuclear power, despite the much larger initial barriers. In my view, there are strong reasons for opting for the latter, which I will detail in the paragraphs below.

India abounds with coal. Indeed, this is the only fossil fuel we have a huge supply of. Beneath the ground in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa lies about 10% of the known reserves, making India the 3rd largest coal producer in the world. With reserves enough to last for at least another 100 years, it is no surprise then that post-Independence a huge emphasis was placed on enhanced production and utilisation for electricity generation. There are of course other demands for coal, most notably by the steel industry where it is used as a raw material. Like many other areas for the economy, the steel industry has also boomed in the last 20 years with a six fold increase in production. But this may also prove to be too little as demand is increasing at an annual pace of 10%+ and is likely to accelerate given the renewed push for infrastructure development by the government. All of this has meant that once again India is importing large quantities of coal negating the trade cushion that large domestic production naturally affords us. What is the reason for this mismatch? All mines in India were nationalised in the 1970s, and have fallen behind the rest of the world in production standards and efficiencies. Finally, Indian coal has a high ash content and low calorific value which means that larger quantities of raw material will need to be mined.

All of these last points highlight the much larger problem with coal- its huge impact on the environment. Fossil fuels pollute, but they do so in two ways- through the emission of particulate matter, S02, N02 and other harmful gases (traditional pollution) and the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. In most of the developed world, the former has vanished almost completely with strict regulations on emissions from plants. In India, with the poor quality of mining and lax environmental normscoal power plants are a huge source of local pollution. This significantly mars the quality of life of the people in the surrounding area, and if a dramatic increase in coal power is planned, a much larger number of people will be affected.

Of course, the much bigger problem and challenge is the huge carbon emissions. To many, the whole debate on climate change is a conspiracy by the West. Just when India appears to be settling on a path of sustained growth, the bogey of carbon emissions is raised by nations that have made full use of carbon based industries themselves. Climate change debate in India is extremely low on facts and high on rhetoric and outlooks range from a care-a-damn attitude to holding it liable for everyunusually heavy downpour. Climate change is by and large not a burning topic for public discussion, certainly not one of the aam aadmi issues and so receives short shrift amongst our politicians- many of whom know precious little on the matter. Imagine then the unease, when the whole issue blew up suddenly at Copenhagen in 2008 and India thrust into a prominent position alongside China. No longer an innocent bystander as at Kyoto a decade before, India’s growth and emergence in the world’s eyes have also ensured that it is now seen as essential to the solution. While there was no deal reached on the matter in part due to India and China standing firm, the writing is on the wall for India. Emission limits are going to come sooner or later. Indeed, they may be pretty soon given the unexpected change in the Government’s stance at the current round of negotiations in Cancun.

All this makes coal powered plants the real villains of the lot. Spewing huge amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, they can (and especially the ones in India) be highly inefficient. Technologies like Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) exist which can reduce this but is at the moment prohibitively expensive and reduces the efficiency of the plant by a further 50%. There is also the additional problem of safe storage of the captured CO2 so that it does not leak out for 100s of years. If even in the West it will require significant government subsidy to implement, there is not much scope of it taking off in India where there will be no governmental support.

A simple modification could be to build gas/oil based plants. While the carbon emissions will be curtailed somewhat, and air pollution unquestionably reduced, these are not a solution to the problems of carbon emissions. And finally India’s oil and gas (despite recent finds) reserves are far short of meeting demand, which would place these plants at the mercy of large fluctuations in international prices or global unrest. Good examples of this are the countries of Europe who are trying hard to diversify themselves away from Russian gas.

Now these can be perceived as significant setbacks, or else as a whole new set of opportunities with the chance for a level playing field. I earnestly believe that these two issues- the burgeoning power deficit and the push to eliminate it and the need to begin some action on climate change have fortuitously come at the same time.

Nuclear energy has a long association with independent India. Nuclear energy caught the attention of our founding fathers and Jawaharlal Nehru was an eager advocate. In an influential letter Homi Bhabha, the architect of the Indian nuclear program wrote “... Moreover, when nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production in say a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand.” But the fortunes of our nuclear ambitions mirrored only too closely that of India’s relations with the rest of the world. The early optimism of the Nehru years disappeared abruptly with the China war, and the 1964 Chinese atomic test only served to highlight India’s isolation from the world’s major powers and the precarious security balance with regards to China. Acquiring a bomb became a national priority; and while the 1974 tests were a triumph for Mrs Gandhi domestically, it spelt doom for civilian nuclear efforts. An outraged international community imposed tough sanctions, which were further intensified after the 1998 nuclear tests. For most people, it seemed that civilian nuclear efforts had been given a quiet burial.

But was this really the case? Amazingly, and in what must be one of the greatest triumphs of Indian science and engineering, it was not! Despite tremendous odds, a great deal of effort was put into civilian nuclear technology. Realising that they couldn’t rely on the West, our scientists decided to revisit the entire basis of the nuclear process and press on with phase II of the so called three stage nuclear program. The emphasis would now be placed on Thorium, which is much more abundant in India. There are significant challenges to using this material, mostly due to the fact that it does not produce the fissile stable Uranium 235 as a by-product of decay. A lot of work has been done in this area, and today we are ready to commission projects at phase II and planning work has already begun for Phase III Advanced Heavy Water Reactor systems.

However, in that period the Cold War became history and our growing economy and some unexpectedly dogged diplomacy won India the landmark nuclear deal of 2008. While the sceptics may decry the ‘loss of sovereignty’ India is now no longer a nuclear pariah and can trade and develop its civilian nuclear capabilities as it sees fit. What I want to underscore here is just how competitive we are; our atomic energy facilities are in many cases at the cutting edge of nuclear research and certainly the best work on Thorium is coming out of India. So much so that nuclear scientists from the West are extremely keen on using our facilities and collaborating with us. I think the nuclear deal will enable us to leverage our strengths well, and if properly planned out, India could very well turn from customer to supplier, exporting high value technology to other countries around the globe. This is an opportunity that surely cannot be missed!

But to return to nuclear energy- does it fulfil the requirements for a reliable source of energy? Well air pollution is extremely limited, and so are carbon emissions as there are no fossil fuels involved (except perhaps for the transfer of the fuel). India possesses vast reserves of Thorium, and electricity from nuclear power will also be cost effective. Sure, it takes longer to build these plants but that in part has been to our lack of experience and the stifling of nuclear commerce pre 2008. This has been taken into account in the growth plans to 20,000 MW by 2020 and then a further tripling to 63,000 MW by 2032. Unlike the solar power targets though, these should be readily achievable. At the moment, Indian industry doesn’t possess many of the skills required by the industry and this will be a great impetus itself for developing high tech industries in India.

However, there is the serious issue of disposal of nuclear by products and the catastrophic scenarios that can arise from a nuclear accident. Indeed it is the latter which has led to large amounts of anti-nuclear feelings especially in Europe. The largest such accident was at Chernobyl in 1986 and the radiation from this affected most of continental Europe. But as has been pointed out, safety standards in the Soviet Union were not as stringent as the West, and even these were blatantly violated as the Soviet economy began to crumble. In other words, it was a terrible exception and given correct management, shouldn’t happen again. In many ways this was eerily similar to Bhopal, which is worrying for two reasons. One it shows we don’t have an inbred safety culture and two that such comparisons could be a convenient bogey for derailment of nuclear projects. The solution is to tackle the former and build up a culture of professionalism and discipline at these nuclear power plants, with safety standards that compare with the West and are adhered to. The memories of Bhopal are still fresh in people’s minds and let’s hope the lessons stay with us also.France is a great example of a system that works. 70% of its electricity is generated in nuclear plants and it has an unblemished safety record. So along with technology, we should have no qualms in learning from the best in the trade and imbibing their safety ethic. If this is done, there is a great chance of nuclear technology becoming another transformative sector for the economy like IT was in this decade.

Being a nuclear energy powerhouse will have a knock-on effect for Indian diplomacy and our relations with the rest of the world. Given the volatile nature of world events, it is almost a certainty that access to nuclear technology will be continue to be restrictive in the years ahead. All of the world powers today have strong nuclear programs- even Japan is a key supplier for civilian nuclear technology. A strong domestic nuclear sector will add a lot of weight to our voice in the world and hasten India’s ascent on the world stage. Nuclear energy will enable us to make significant progress in meeting any emissions targets that could be set for us and will make clear to the world that India is serious about climate change. Not only is this good for us in the long run (India is particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures) but it will also deflect pressure back on the developed nations who are primarily responsible for the problem. Such a bold move would be another shot in the arm for Indian diplomacy.

If a stopgap solution is required, then coal and gas plants are the way forward. Indeed, to meet the immediate deficit, this is the only way. But it is not the technology for the future. At the moment, that mantle lies with nuclear energy. Our country has already done a great deal of work under very difficult conditions to build up our nuclear program. It would be a tragedy to let this slide and not harness its capabilities. Accomplishing this will require vision- but then, that is exactly what is needed to build the India of the future.
 
   
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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