The paradox is that while wind and solar must be pursued, energy generated by a coal or nuclear power plant is at least three times in quantity as that from intermittent solar, wind and even water power sources
If we were to look back on the year 2012, among the many images one of people standing in the sea off Kudankulam and protesting against the commissioning of the nuclear power plant stands out.
Indeed the Indian nuclear power programme went through a tough phase in 2011. The commissioning of the 1,000 MW Kudankulam nuclear power reactor and fuel loading was delayed by several months following public protests and concerns about the safety of the reactor. This also opened up a debate on the desirability of nuclear power in India.
India is an emerging economy and is in the process of rapid growth and industrialisation, which places a high demand on various infrastructural sectors, in particular energy. The demand supply gap in power generation is gradually increasing and scheduled and unscheduled load shedding is a part of our life.
India’s installed electric power generation capacity is about 180,000 MW. Thermal power sources contribute around 65 per cent of the electricity, hydro power 21 per cent, other renewables 10 per cent and the share of nuclear power is just 3 per cent. The country is targeting a GDP growth rate of 8-9 per cent and there are estimates that energy supply should increase at almost the same rate to support such economic growth.
In other words, our present installed capacity should increase to almost 7,00,000 MW by 2030! This is even after considering likely energy savings from energy-efficient technologies. The question is where do we get the energy?
Our domestic coal reserves are depleting, coal mining is unable to keep pace with the growing energy demands in power plants and consequently coal imports are increasing. The expected power potential from hydroelectricity is 1,50,000MW, however, it is unclear how much of this could be realised given the ecological and environmental concerns.
There is also considerable excitement surrounding wind and solar prospects. The cost of solar power has reduced to around Rs 7.5/KWh. Likewise, there are revised assessments of wind power potential at 80-120 metres height.
While we should pursue solar and wind power, it is important to keep in mind that the energy generated by coal or a nuclear power plant is 3-4 times that of the energy generated by a solar or wind power plant of the same megawatt capacity. Moreover, these sources are intermittent and will not produce energy on demand.
In this background, nuclear power is an important source of energy for the country to pursue.
Unlike countries such as Germany and Japan we don't have the luxury of neglecting any source of energy, in particular nuclear power.
Nuclear power provides 16 per cent of energy worldwide through 430 nuclear plants with an installed capacity of close to 3,70,000MW. It is, therefore, a major and mature industry.
Notwithstanding the Fukushima disaster, several countries have active nuclear power programmes including China, India, Russia and South Korea. India's present installed capacity is 4,780MW. Admittedly this is low and the growth has been slow. However, it is important to realise that most of India's nuclear power programme was developed indigenously while India was an embargoed nation and not allowed to import technology reactors and fuel.
However, the signing of the landmark Indo-US agreement for cooperation in civilian nuclear power opened exiting possibilities for rapid capacity addition. India's three-phase nuclear power programme relied heavily on building fast breeder reactors as an intermediate step to exploit the country's large thorium deposits and lead to energy security. This was because the limited uranium reserves are expected to last for a few decades and hence the need to go in for plutonium and thorium based systems. This plan appears to be few decades away because it will take considerable time to generate sufficient stock of plutonium required for large scale deployment of fast reactors and thorium based reactors.
What are the immediate concerns that India needs to address regarding expansion of nuclear power? One of the main reasons behind the slow progression building Light Water Reactors (LWR) is the lack of consensus regarding nuclear liability provisions.
The nuclear suppliers had objected to a few clauses in the Act, which stipulates that the supplier of nuclear equipment could be held liable for any damage or accidents much beyond the normal warranty period. The internationally-accepted norm is to fix the liability on the operator.
India is perhaps the only country with such an ambitious fast reactor program and has an excellent opportunity to emerge as a world leader in the development and deployment of these technologies. Last but not the least, the issue of public acceptance is of prime importance and should be addressed when a country is in the process of expanding its nuclear power programme. The Fukushima accident has raised public concerns about nuclear power and Kudankulam is one such example. No technology is entirely risk free. However, it is important to communicate the risks transparently and effectively to the public. Members of the nuclear community should come forward and provide accurate and easily comprehendible information to improve public understanding of nuclear power.
Nuclear power is a crucial component of India's future energy mix. We need a portfolio of energy generation sources, fossil, renewable and nuclear, to secure our energy future. The nuclear power program should be pursued with clear focus and policy directives.