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Ashok Parthasarathi argues that nuclear power must be central to India's energy policy and part of a broad mix that includes renewables.

Nine months of negotiations between India and the United States ended recently with the two countries agreeing to cooperate on nuclear energy. Under the deal, the United States will sell India technology for civilian use in nuclear power stations (see India and US sign milestone nuclear deal).

Many in India question whether the country even needs the deal, but I firmly believe that it does. This is because any strategy for India to achieve energy security must involve a mix of many different energy sources, from clean coal, oil and gas to renewables such as wind and solar power — and nuclear energy.

But the fact remains that India still faces severe challenges regarding the operational safety of all kinds of nuclear installation, from uranium mines to nuclear power stations.

There are also serious problems to do with treating and disposing of the large volumes of highly radioactive waste generated not only by nuclear reactors but also by plants that extract plutonium or produce nuclear fuel.

Finally, there is the question of 'entombing' nuclear reactors when they have completed their useful life. The cost of decommissioning Japan's Takeshima nuclear power station, which is now under way, is estimated at US$660 million — almost as much as it cost to set up the reactor itself.

Another problematic issue is economics. Worldwide, independent studies have shown that nuclear power plants based on current technology are not cost competitive compared to coal-fired power plants, even when the latter use coal hauled 1,300-1,600 kilometres from coal mines to feed the power plants. 

Atomic energy development agencies around the world have been universally coy about providing transparent data relating to the costs of generating power, as well as of ensuring environmental safety, handling waste and decommissioning old reactors. 

The thorium strategy

To tackle these challenges, India needs both new technology and high investments. It is also a fact that India's reserves of uranium are only enough to fuel 12–14,000 megawatts of first-generation thermal reactors (it takes about 1,000 megawatts to power a US city the size of Seattle). But in another respect, India already has a clear advantage.

Ever since the founders of India's nuclear programme realised the country had the world's largest thorium reserves, the plan has been to develop nuclear power in three stages. The strategy is to start with uranium-fuelled thermal reactors, go on to fast-breeder reactors, and eventually replace them with thorium-breeder reactors.

India's current thermal reactors produce just 3,800 megawatts. The country is building its first fast-breeder reactor, intended to go online in 2010, generating 500 megawatts. Two more are planned to be in place by 2025, as is an advanced thermal reactor that should pave the way for the thorium reactors.

Eventually, India should be able to produce thorium breeders on a commercial basis – making it the only country able to do so.

Cleaner coal power

As the moment, however, India is only generating three per cent of its electricity from nuclear power (see Table). Even if India meets its target of generating 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2025, this would only increase this source's share of the total electricity generated to six per cent. Any truly viable energy security strategy for the country must therefore involve a mix of energy technologies.

India's energy mix
source percentage
coal 60
hydropower 20
oil and gas 11
wind and solar power 6
nuclear power 3

In the short to medium term, the focus must be on coal. India urgently needs to set up more coal-fired power stations close to the coal mines themselves, to relieve the current burden on the railway system.

India must also master 'clean coal' technologies such as 'integrated gasification combined cycle' (IGCC) plants, which turn coal into a gas and then remove impurities from the gas before it is combusted. The result is far fewer emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Fortunately, India's two main public companies in the electricity sector, the National Thermal Power Corporation and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd, are already launching a joint project to set up a prototype IGCC plant in the western state of Rajasthan. A 127-megawatt plant should be operational by 2010.
The United States has also offered to collaborate with India in the more advanced field of coal-fired power stations with zero emissions, though at present the potential to develop them looks uncertain, and very much a long-term project.

Boost for renewables

Increasing the capacity of India's large hydropower plants supply would also take many years as well as involving severe environmental consequences and large-scale resettlement of displaced people. But there is clear potential to boost the capacity of other renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass and small-scale hydropower from six to ten per cent by 2025.

Two-thirds of India's massive population of well over one billion live in its 600,000 villages. For them, local energy sources hold great promise. So it is vital that in addition to boosting nuclear and clean coal energy supplies, India does more to research, develop, manufacture and deploy decentralised power sources based on wind, solar power and biomass.

India's wind power potential is estimated at 45,000 megawatts, yet only 3,800 megawatts are currently generated using this method. Germany, by contrast, is generating 18,000 megawatts, Spain 8,000 megawatts and the United States 7,000 megawatts. 

India needs to make an all-out effort to push forward its wind energy programme. The same applies to solar power. Although India has a million solar installations operating in rural areas — the largest by far in the world – ten times that are needed to cover the 100,000 villages that can't be connected to conventional electricity grids for either technical or economic reasons.

We have the technology, we have the manufacturing plants, we have the field experience – all we need is the will and the investment.

All in all, India is at the threshold of an exciting phase in its drive for energy security. Much work involving a diverse blend of energy sources remains to be done. But India has a vast pool of scientists and engineers to undertake this task.

What is needed is clear thinking, and a well-defined and sustained plan for implementing an integrated strategy of R&D, commercial production and large-scale distribution and operation. That is the challenge before India.

Ashok Parthasarathi is former science advisor to the late prime minister Indira Gandhi and permanent secretary to several scientific departments in the government of India.