Special Report

What is India’s nuclear energy future?

Analysing India’s nuclear energy outlook

The country has gigantic energy needs in the future. In this gigantic energy need, how much per cent nuclear is going to contribute is very sceptical as there are much resistance to the nuclear power development in the country. In spite of facing confrontations there seems to be no stoppage to the nuclear energy as the developers are firm that nuclear energy is safe and will be sustainable in the future which certainly will be proved in the days to come.

It seems that the government is showing its huge interest in developing nuclear power as in July 2014, the government had announced tripling of the then existing capacity of 4,780 MW in the next ten years. With the commencement of commercial operation of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP), Unit-1 (1,000 MW) in December 2014, the installed nuclear power capacity in the country has reached 5,780 MW. In addition, KKNPP, Unit-2 (1,000 MW) has been connected to the grid for the first time in August-2016 and is presently generating infirm power. On commencement of commercial operation of KKNPP-2, the installed nuclear power capacity in the country will reach to 6,780 MW.

Further, four reactors with a total capacity of 2,800 MW are under construction and four more reactors with a total capacity of 3,400 MW have been accorded sanction by the government. Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd (BHAVINI), is building one 500 MWe capacity Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. PFBR is expected to be functional by October 2017. On progressive completion of these projects, the installed nuclear capacity will reach 13,480 MW. More reactors based on both indigenous technologies and with foreign technical cooperation are also planned in future.

At present the share of nuclear energy in the country is about 3.2 per cent in the current financial year 2016-17 (up to Feb-2017). To understand more the article will describe about what is India’s nuclear energy future.

For any major power energy independence is of vital importance. This requires physical control of raw material and the technological and scientific ability to use this resource for the common weal. Because of its universality, this is particularly true for electricity.

Briefing about what is India’s nuclear energy future Shah Nawaz Ahmad, Senior Advisor, India, Middle East and South East Asia, World Nuclear Association says, “Thorium is a principal resource that is indigenously available. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is therefore pursuing the three stage programme of Uranium based thermal reactors, followed by fast breeder reactors that will eventually breed enough U233 (from Th 232) to permit Thorium fuel to generate commercial electricity. But this is still some way off. Hence, in the intervening period energy security acquires greater importance.”

Electricity is an immediate need in India and the government is pursuing an optimal mix policy of fossil, renewable and nuclear based energy generation.

He adds, “However nuclear power is specially placed to guarantee energy security to the nation; and its usage needs to be accelerated.” Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) supply 24 / 7 power reliably over long periods. NPPs have the highest capacity factors (85-90 per cent as against less than 30 per cent for most renewable) and long plant life (more than 60 years). This permits nuclear to be competitive in most parts of the world in-spite of high capital costs.

Nuclear fuel can be stocked in large quantities at the plant site (at 27 tonne/year for a 1,000 MWe plant) at a small fraction of the cost of the plant. (Against 3 million tonne / year for a coal plant).

Nuclear is the safest electricity generation option (in terms of deaths/TWh) even after taking into account of the accidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima (there have been no radiation related deaths in Fukushima event). Some studies have even found it to be safer than roof top solar.

Ahmad informs, “The cost for wastes is internalised in the economics of the nuclear plant. Also the volume of high radioactive waste is also much smaller; solid waste of about 1 T /year for a 1000 MWe plant with reprocessing for nuclear. The comparable figures for coal are ash 300,000 tonne, gases 7 million tonne.”

Nuclear power also has the lowest life-time carbon foot-print after wind and hydro. That is why the 2 C scenario of the International Energy Agency to mitigate the effects of climate change, requires nuclear to be amongst the largest component (17 per cent) of electricity generation in 2050.

“It is because of these obvious strengths, that more NPPs are being built today, than in the last 25 years. In fact a study by the World Nuclear Association, the world’s premier international nuclear industry association, finds that it should be possible for nuclear to contribute 25 per cent by 2050,” states Ahmad.

On the other hand India has voluntary pledged at the COP-21 meeting in Paris to reduce its carbon emissions by 33-35 per cent by 2030 and enhance the share of its clean energy in the overall energy matrix to 40 per cent by then. This commitment of India can be fulfilled not just by investments in renewable energy but also by gradual increase in investments in nuclear energy, which is by far one of the cleanest forms of energies available. “Because of India’s abundance of thorium reserves, the prospects of India’s nuclear energy future looks extremely bright given the commitment of Indian government to make the three stage nuclear program a success,” states Raghvendra Upadhya, Chief Knowledge Officer, Independent Power Producers Association of India.

As per reports, India is on the right track to have around 14.6 GW of nuclear power generation capacity by 2024 and committed to have 63 GW of capacity by 2032. India’s expertise in developing, running fast breeder reactors and in managing thorium fuel cycle makes it quite capable in making its three stage nuclear program a major success over the next three decades. Certain reports indicate that India has the potential to generate around 470-500 GW of electricity from nuclear power plants by 2050, if it can leverage and manage its three stage nuclear program well. “In the aftermath of the signing of the path breaking Indo-US Civil Nuclear deal, the last few years have witnessed India racing ahead with several deals for acquisition of nuclear reactors from Russia, France and the US. While agreements have been signed with France for construction of six nuclear reactors, in 2016 India also signed a new nuclear agreement with Russia with plans to develop five more reactors with capacities of 1,000 MW each. Once a critical mass is reached, the second stage of the three stage program would be triggered from the capacity developed by then,” informs Upadhya.

Upadhya thinks that there are crucial issues that may need to be addressed: what will be impact on tariff of new nuclear power plants keeping nuclear liability issues, safety issues in light of Fukushima, problems in land acquisition, high reactor costs and uncertainty in availability and cost of fuel supply for the initial stages of the nuclear program? How will it be mainstreamed into the grid, given its must run status (nuclear power cannot be backed down easily), the tariff uncertainty, and its consequent affordability for cash strapped discoms which are looking at the significantly cheaper energy from coal fired thermal plants and at short term power procurement which in the short to medium term could be cheaper than nuclear power from long term contracts.

India requires low-cost sustainable base load electricity generation to address concerns of the future energy balance, keep higher capacities utilisation rate, reduce use of freshwater resources and achieve targets in greenhouses gases emissions, believes Evgeny Pakermanov, President of Rusatom Overseas. He says, “Increasing share of large capacity nuclear power units with light water reactors may be one of the preferred solutions to provide energy given these circumstances. However the proper track record of projects execution and proven design are key factors to choose a reliable partner for further developing light water reactor technology application in India.”

Russia and India have jointly built the country’s largest and one of the most efficient nuclear power plant at Kudankulam. “We are ready to enhance our cooperation for building next six units of 1,200 MW capacity each at a second site in India with respective commitment for localisation and secured long-term fuel supply,” Pakermanov adds.

A Sr spokesperson form GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy says, “GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy continues to have a strong interest in providing our technology to India for the eventual construction of multiple ESBWRs, the world’s safest approved reactor design. We believe the path forward requires a sustainable regulatory environment, which would include a nuclear liability law that channels liability to plant operators consistent with global best practices.”

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