Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A PRESPECTIVE ON NUCLEAR POWER IN INDIA

“It sits in the water like a beautiful nymph...and so with your permission I would like to name it Apsara...the celestial nymph associated with water...”..

These were the words with which Pandit Jawarhalal Nehru addressed the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre (BARC) scientists when he arrived to inaugurate the first nuclear reactor in India on August 4; 1956.It was called Apsara because it was a swimming pool based reactor. Apsara was not only the first nuclear reactor in India but also in Asia. It heralded the arrival of India's nuclear energy programme. BARC director Dr. Homi Bhabha himself conceptualised the design of the reactor and the reactor was built entirely by Indian engineers in a record time of about 15 months. The inauguration of Apsara triggered hopes of optimism in the country.

For a nation that was recently independent and had critical energy issues nuclear power seemed to the answer to all problems. It was billed as environment friendly and a technological boon. The steps towards the nuclear age had started right after independence itself when in 1948 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was set up, with Homi Bhabha as the chairman. Later on the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was created under the Office of the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Initially the AEC and DAE received international cooperation, and by 1963 India had two research reactors and four nuclear power reactors. India stood steadfast in its promise of peaceful nuclear energy uses and saw nuclear energy only as a means to solving the energy crisis.

However by the 1970’s India had been through three wars and the Cold War era had just started. Thus India too believed that a slight reorientation in its nuclear policies was required and on May 18, 1974 India performed a 15 kt Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE).The international community viewed this as breach of trust of its commitment towards India and issued sanctions against it. Even then India continued to develop its nuclear programme and exploded both fission and fusion devices on May 11 and 13, 1998.

This was viewed by the international community as a serious threat to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Non Proliferation Treaty. ; both deemed essential to stop the spread of nuclear weapons India’s own defence for non sign is that it feels that the these treaties favoring nuclear states and is prepared to sign if genuine nuclear disarmament is included as an integral part of these treaties. Since then however India has been able to pursue a peaceful nuclear doctrine.

In 2008 India signed a civilian nuclear agreement with USA. This heralded a new era in Indian nuclear power history. Since then India has entered into multiple agreements with various countries of the world for sharing of nuclear technology. These agreements solved India’s long standing problem of Uranium reserves for nuclear fuel.

As of 2010, twenty nuclear power reactors produce 4,780.00 MW (2.9% of total installed base) 5 other are under construction and are expected to generate an additional 3,900 MW. India’s nuclear power industry is undergoing rapid expansion with plans to increase nuclear power output to 63,000 MW by 2032. India being a member of IAEA has agreements with several countries on various aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. India stands 9th in the world in terms of number of operational nuclear power reactors. In terms of nuclear reactor technology too India has seen significant progress. The original reactors were PHWR(pressurized Heavy water Breeder Reactors).Now conscious efforts are being made into developing LWR(Light Water Reactors) and FBR(Fast Breeder Reactors ) which would ensure even greater efficiency. In October 2010 India’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA became operational, with the Indian Government confirming that 14 reactors will be put under the India Specific Safeguards Agreement by 2014.Thus India has seen a progress in terms of generation and use of nuclear power.

However these factors need to be deconstructed effectively. If it is done then we will arrive at the conclusions that nuclear power has not been much of a success in India as it was originally envisioned. The nuclear power sector in India has suffered from myriad problems.

First and foremost the performance of the completed reactors has not been very good. Their actual output as compared to their possible maximum output is about the same as for coal-fired and hydroelectric power stations in India (around 45%). The high capital costs of nuclear reactors dictate that they must be run at something like 70 percent or more of maximum output in order to be economic. This failure to achieve a better output than other power stations in India indicates one reason why nuclear reactors have not, in actuality, been economic producers of electricity.
 
Secondly India has never been able to substantiate a proper fuel reserve for itself. There has been  major effort in uranium exploration  which have absorbed huge finances to India has still not located, after thirty years, any reserves of good quality uranium. Although new major reserves have been located in Andhra Pradesh and Meghalaya yet the environmental concerns have put a question mark on these projects as well. With the signing of the civilian nuclear programs nuclear fuel could be obtained from other countries. However for a country to be self sufficient in power a really sizeable nuclear power programme could not be fuelled by the limited quantity of assured reserves. 

Thirdly the development of technology in this sector has not produced the desired results. Although post Independence a major part of the national exchequer has been devoted to the research in this sector yet problems still persist in this sector. The Indian fuel enrichment plan has still not been able to produce the kind of desired results. Twenty to twenty-five per cent of the country's research and development spending has gone on nuclear research. Nevertheless, nuclear power is not yet a major energy source in India, and self-reliance has not yet been achieved.

Fourthly when the huge operating costs are taken into account and a detailed economic analysis of India's power reactors is done then it is seen that nuclear electricity generation has no advantage over hydro or coal-fired generation. Indeed the latter two are considerably cheaper unless the electricity must be transmitted 800 km or more. Thus the logic of cheaper technology itself has been nullified.

The Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan rings as the fifth and the most dangerous problem with a nuclear power programme. It is the operational risk that runs in any nuclear programme. The Chernobyl disaster was pegged at trillions of dollars while scientists are still calculating the damage of the Fukushima disasters in Japan. Human cost of nuclear disaster is massive. Proponents of nuclear energy argue that Japan was in a seismic zone and it was a environmental disaster and not a technical failure. However such proponents seem to ignore the fact that India too sits on a high seismic belt. India too has been affected by massive earthquakes (e.g. Bhuj), Tsunami disasters (Tamil Nadu) among disasters. Natural disasters which pose the biggest threat to nuclear plants cannot be stopped or mitigated. Since its inception India too has seen 6 small nuclear disasters with total losses pegged at 830 million dollars with the latest which occurred in 2002 in the Kalapappam nuclear reactor in Tamil Nadu. These incidents have been on smaller scale but they indicate that a major disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima is only one mishap away. Thus the human and economic costs of operating a nuclear plant are huge.

It is in this aspect that India has to move away from this regime to a new alternative regime which is based on other sources of power. It is pertinent that one motivation behind India's nuclear power programme has been the desire to stay abreast of modern developments in science and technology. Yet this can surely be achieved by spreading funding across a number of different scientific areas and disciplines and new alternative technologies for power generation. These include:

Solar Energy: Solar energy certainly has great potential in India. For about 75 percent of the year sunshine throughout the day is assured for most of the country. During the monsoon, cloud cover makes direct sunlight an unreliable source but the diffuse sunlight available may well be sufficiently powerful to be worth using. Organizations like TERI should strengthen their solar energy programmes for power generation. The recent National Solar Power Plan which has been envisaged in India is a welcome step in this regard. 

Biogas: Since ancient times biogas has been used as a form of fuel in India in the form of cow dungs. However barring a few concentrated attempts efforts have rarely been made to produce this on a larger scale. In comparison to India its neighbours China have achieved rapid progress in this field. Instead of the traditional cow dung that is used in India the Chinese use pig dung in their biogas plant.

Pig manure seems to be the more suitable material for biogas production, which might explain why the Chinese programme is much bigger than the Indian. Thus some kind of biochemical breakthrough in methods of handling source material for Indian biogas plants might be necessary to bring the Indian programme up to the size of the Chinese. When biogas production has ceased, a nitrogen-rich material is left behind. This is suitable for use as a fertiliser. Since the manufacture of artificial fertilizers is an energy-intensive activity, this 'by-product' of biogas production may represent a substantial way of saving energy. 

Hydropower: India has been blessed with large number of rivers most of which are perennial in nature. These rivers provide a chance for hydel energy generated from water turbines. The North Eastern part of India and the northern part of India have ample rivers which can act as hydel source. Small to medium size dams can be built over these rivers and can be linked to a grid which can ensure continues power generation and availability. Already hydel power is a major component of electricity in India however efforts must be made to resolve the environmental concerns associated with it as well and then move towards establishing a national hydel power grid.

Tidal power: India holds a large coastline of 7600 kms. This acts as a vast unused reserve of the tidal energy that the ocean offers. The company Atlantis Resources is to install a 50MW tidal farm in the Gulf of Kutch on India's west coast, with construction starting early in 2012.This will be the first tidal power project in India and Asia. Further research needs to be taken up in this regard.

Apart from these other sources of energy like shale gas, wind energy, geothermal energy, hot springs too must be developed in India. The Indian Government has taken some major steps in this regard however further impetus is expected in these fields.

Apart from these in the traditional power alternatives some changes must be made in terms of policymaking. Fossil fuels like coal, petroleum etc will not last forever. Hence conspicuous efforts must be made to ensure sustained and judicious use of these available resources. These include measures of upgrading technology to prevent disasters like oil spilling (which wastes a lot of oil), developing better refined oil transportation facilities (since a large part of refined oil is very often wasted in the largely unorganized network) etc.

Apart from this the most important change must be in the mindsets of people. The citizens must be made aware of suitable power consumption which would ensure a strong power delivery in the longer run. People must be made aware of innovative concepts like Green housing.

In the long run it will take a sustained government –public partnership to ensure that a alternative to nuclear power is viable and workable. The image of the dead city of Chernobyl even after 25 years of its occurance still haunts the world. Efforts must be made at any cost to avoid such dangers and the best way out lies in saying no to nuclear power.

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