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Is nuclear the answer to India’s energy crisis?

Copyright: K.S. Harikrishnan

Speed read

  • India’s energy shortage is cited as the main reason for expanding nuclear power

  • Nuclear energy is expensive and not sustainable for South Asia

  • Imported reactors will raise the overall cost of electricity supply

For India, nuclear energy is costly, unsustainable, unsafe, and no help with climate change, argues M. V. Ramana.

The primary argument given for India’s plans to expand nuclear power is that the country already suffers from electricity shortages, and its electricity demand is fast growing. Therefore, it is argued, the country cannot but develop all sources of electricity generation, including nuclear power. Similar arguments are also made in other South Asian countries, including Pakistan that is building up its nuclear infrastructure and Bangladesh that plans to construct its first nuclear power plant.

There are a number of secondary arguments that are also often offered. In recent years, with increasing concern about climate change, the purported environmental benefits of nuclear power have also been made much of. Another old argument that periodically resurfaces is the idea that nuclear power represents a modern technology that countries like India have to acquire in order to keep up with the developed world. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh articulated this idea some years ago when he stated: “There is today talk the world over of a nuclear renaissance and we cannot afford to miss the bus or lag behind these global developments.”

Nuclear power declining

These are important arguments, but the reality is that nuclear power does not offer support to any of these. Let’s start with the last. The fundamental problem is that there is no nuclear renaissance to speak of. It fizzled out even before it started, with the multiple reactor accidents in Fukushima in Japan sealing any remaining ideas.

Nuclear power is declining around the world and has been doing so for many years now. Globally, nuclear power provides about 11 per cent of electricity generated (in kilowatt hours), down from its historic maximum of 17.6 per cent in 1996. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency’s projections for the future have been declining steadily and also project nuclear power as constituting two to 5.4 per cent of the world’s installed electricity generation capacity (in gigawatts) in 2050, down from 6.5 per cent in 2013.

Despite sustained interest on the part of the politicians and governments in the developed world, nuclear power has not even maintained market share, let alone grow. So, getting onto the nuclear bus will take us back into the past; developments around the world are making nuclear power less relevant each succeeding year.

If the percentages mentioned above are depressingly small for nuclear enthusiasts, the reality in India is even more dismal. Current nuclear capacity in India — more than 60 years after the atomic energy programme was established — is just 5,780 megawatts, a mere 2.23 per cent of the total generation capacity. In comparison, modern renewables — wind and solar energy — that started in earnest only a decade or so ago, have grown dramatically and now constitute over 12 per cent of the capacity in India.

What’s even more important is that these sources, especially wind, have started putting in more kilowatt hours of energy into the electricity grid than nuclear power. This indeed is the arena where modern technological advances might be gainfully adapted to South Asia. The obsession with nuclear technology is best consigned to the dustbin of history.

Even with extremely optimistic assumptions about the future, the nuclear fraction in India is unlikely to increase to more than five per cent for decades, if ever. The multiple reasons for this assertion are elaborated in my book, The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India, and include a history of failure, poor technology choices and a lack of organisational learning.

“Despite sustained interest on the part of the politicians and governments in the developed world, nuclear power has not even maintained market share, let alone grow.”

M. V. Ramana, Princeton University

The Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has long made ambitious projections and failed to deliver. The DAE’s plans also involve constructing hundreds of fast breeder reactors. In the early decades of nuclear power, many countries pursued breeder reactor programmes, but practically all of them have given up on breeder reactors as unsafe and uneconomical. The DAE has simply not absorbed the lessons from the sorry history of breeder technology globally, and thus shows a lack of organisational learning.

Energy shortages

With regard to the argument about the growing energy needs in India and other South Asian countries necessitating the development of all sources of energy, what is important to realise is that these countries require electricity that is cheap and affordable. Nuclear power is poorly suited to this requirement because it is expensive. This has been amply borne out in the Indian case, where coal-based thermal power has been and continues to be cheaper than nuclear electricity. What has changed in recent years is that renewables have out competed nuclear power.

According to a 2014 report by the Wall Street advisory firm Lazard, the cost of generating a megawatt-hour of electricity from a new nuclear reactor (without considering government subsidies, including those for liability for severe accidents) is between US$ 92 and US$ 132. That compares to US$ 61 to US$ 87 for a natural-gas combined-cycle plant, US$ 37 to US$ 81 for wind turbines, and US$ 72 to US$ 86 for utility-scale solar. The low cost of natural gas might be specific to the US, with its ample reserves of shale gas, but the others should translate well to South Asia.

Looking to the future, the difference between nuclear and other sources of power is only going to increase. While costs of wind and solar power have been falling, nuclear costs have been rising. Expectations that the nuclear industry will learn from past experience and become cheaper have been belied repeatedly.

Increased investment in nuclear reactors, especially the reactors India is seeking to import from France and the US as well as fast breeder reactors, is unwise. The purchasing power generated in these will increase the overall cost of electricity supply in the country. For a country that already has high electricity rates — industrial tariffs are among the highest in the world — nuclear energy remains, ‘an expensive indulgence’.

Nuclear power and climate change

Finally, the other commonly heard argument — that nuclear power would significantly reduce India’s carbon emissions and thereby help with climate change mitigation. First, India’s planners do not see it as a question of nuclear power or fossil fuels, but nuclear power and fossil fuels. Second, if nuclear power cannot expand rapidly and substantially, then it cannot help with climate change in any significant fashion, especially if the achieved expansion comes at the cost of investment in other potential solutions to these concerns. Third, because of its centralised character and the huge costs involved, nuclear power cannot play a significant role in solving the energy needs of the vast majority of India’s population, much less do so in a way that offers any net environmental gains.

In particular, trying to use nuclear power as a solution to climate change only brings with it two of the familiar — and so far insoluble — problems associated with nuclear energy: susceptibility to catastrophic accidents, and having to deal with radioactive waste that stays hazardous to human health for millennia.

M. V. Ramana is with the Programme on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, and the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin 2012).

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.

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