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Policy | Nuclear power is the way forward

A focus on nuclear power will not only help India reduce its dependence on fossil fuels that contribute to climate change, but will also make India more energy independent.

February 19, 2020 / 01:24 PM IST

Mervin Alexander

The importance of global warming and the subsequent climate change needs no reiterating. Yet again we were reminded of it, this time by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who on February 17 announced the Bezos Earth Fund, a $10 billion-worth initiative to fight climate change. India has been in the forefront of initiatives to give up dependence on fossil fuels and the International Solar Alliance (ISA) is a good example of this.

Developing countries in Asia and Africa, as against the developed nations in Europe, do not often have global warming and climate change on the top of their list. This could be because there are more pressing real-time concerns that need to be prioritised — however, the harmful effects of climate change know no national boundaries. This is seen is extreme weather-related events, such as the intense storms in the Gangetic Plains and the Mekong and Pearl River Deltas, the wildfires in Australia and South America, etc.

The UN intergovernmental panel on climate change has suggested some measures for tackling the problem. It recommends a focus on renewables, such as wind and solar power to provide between 59 and 97 percent of the total electricity by 2030. It has also proposed a focus on nuclear energy to augment wherever possible, and up to 28 percent.

It is here — in the quest to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels — that India must pay more attention to nuclear energy. Currently India produces only around 6,250 MWs of nuclear power which is just around 6.3 percent of the power production in the country. India operates 22 nuclear power plants, a bulk of them pressurised hard water reactors (PHWRs), and has ambitious plans for capacity expansion. In this line, news reports that India and the United States are back to efforts to resolve the issues surrounding the stalled six nuclear power plants is good news.

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Even if India were to achieve 450 GW of power from the twin renewables of solar and wind, the key issue here would be storage. India has no natural lithium or cobalt and other rare metal reserves, which are the most critical in the storage of renewable energy generated. This would make us perennially dependent on other countries for meeting our energy needs.

Here, nuclear energy has an advantage. Not only has India acquired mastery over the construction and operation of the PHWRs at competitive international costs, but it has a mature supply line and does not have to depend on imports to meet fuel needs.

At a recent event, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, said that India’s energy future depended on its rapid growth of nuclear power. “This (climate) crisis is becoming deeper and deeper….So implementation of the atomic energy programme will become more and more aggressive with time … There is a need to do things faster,” he said.

Nuclear waste is a major concern globally and dissuades many countries from relying on this technology. Reprocessing of this waste helps reduce the quantum of waste generated in the reactor that needs to be disposed of through safe storage.

For this, India has a well laid out, long term, 3-stage nuclear programme. India has invested large resources in its recycle programme through the Integrated Nuclear Recycle Plant (INRP). India is considered as one of the leaders in recycle technology. In addition to Thorium, India also has large reserves of Uranium in the eastern and southern parts of India. This would mean that fuel would not be a constraint in future.

Another factor frequently quoted against the civilian use of nuclear power is the consequences of accidents. It must be remembered that of the three major nuclear reactor accidents (based on cost), Chenobyl was entirely attributed to human error, while the other two, the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents, too had significant human errors involved. The solution to this is not to shun the technology altogether, but to use technology to counter the problems caused by technology.

To our advantage, when it comes to nuclear power, India has established a good safety culture. Thus India has a lot going in its favour when it comes to replying on nuclear power generation.

Mervin Alexander is Joint Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India. Views are personal.
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