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Does India Need Nuclear Energy? – Analysis

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The Fukushima Daiichi disaster has reinvigorated nuclear energy debate in India. With four nuclear reactors currently under construction and the world’s largest nuclear power project about to commence in Jaitapur in the state of Maharashtra, around two hundred and fifty miles south of the financial capital Mumbai, environmentalists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) alike have raised their concerns on India’s nuclear trajectory since 2008, when the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal came to fruition accompanied by a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Slowly and steadily the issue has escaped the bounds of these organisations and been hijacked by local parties like the Shiva Sena and Nationalist Congress Party.1 This article addresses these issues plus ensuing debates and aims to underscore the importance of nuclear energy in India’s energy mix.

Fukushima Daiichi disaster on March 11 raised questions about the ‘nuclear renaissance’ that was well underway due to technological advance and relatively safe operation for two decades after Chernobyl, the last accident in 1986. However, Fukushima fuelled dormant concerns on the future of nuclear energy. Majority of the western countries with Germany and Switzerland in prominence have decided to place a halt on their nuclear programs and even abandon nuclear energy by 2022. Also European Union has ordered safety audits on all of its one hundred and forty-three nuclear reactors.2These nations have started to review the future of nuclear energy particularly taking into consideration as to whether the long term benefits are really worth the accompanying risks.

Amidst the renewing debates, India’s nuclear energy plans have received a systematic critical re-evaluation on many fronts. Environmentalists have especially criticised and raised several concerns about the way the Government of India (GoI) has dealt with the Jaitapur nuclear power project This project aims to become commercially operational by 2018 when two of its six European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) to be provided by the French Company Areva start functioning. Once the whole project is finished each reactor will produce 1650MW of electricity bringing the combined total to 9900MW,3 eventually making it one of the world’s biggest nuclear power parks. NGOs like Konkan Bachao Samiti (KBS) and Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) have termed the government’s strategy as purely undemocratic. The Environment Ministry is accused of hastily giving the environmental clearance despite the fact that most of the affected people are against the Jaitapur project as this will affect their livelihood in several different ways. They have rejected the compensation the government plans to offer, which stands at ten lakhs rupees per acre of land acquired.4 The causal factor of this grievance is that the power project located in a seismically active zone would increase the probability of accidents. Essentially, the plant will sit at the centre of one of the vital biodiversity hotspots in the world, putting this pristine natural environment at unfathomable risk. The Konkan region’s huge agriculture, horticulture and fishing industries would be affected by enhanced security arrangements in the surrounding areas and the coastal waters.5

Nevertheless, over the past few months, Jaitapur has become a catalyst for an ever widening debate on whether India requires nuclear energy at all. Many activists claim that the government’s active pursuance of nuclear energy has inhibited progress in the renewable sector, gradually leading to its marginalisation as an important source of alternative energy. Moreover, nuclear plants require national subsidies which mitigate any profit, rather appropriate investments into renewable energy like the solar, wind and hydel power projects could catapult India towards a new energy revolution. GoI is accused of paying scant attention to these alternatives which in their stand alone ‘avatars’ or off-grid forms would prove to be an optimal solution for the energy starved villages and regions of India.6 In support of this assertion more than eighty highly influential and respected people have signed a long petition against the Jaitapur nuclear power plant, whilst suggesting alternative forms of energy production should receive a major thrust. An eminent personality to have taken this stand is the former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan.7 Amid such vociferous disapproval of India’s nuclear energy mission, one is compelled to ask this question: Does India need nuclear energy?

To answer this question a practical evaluation of some future scenarios is needed. India currently is the second fastest growing economy in the world and the GoI plans to maintain this growth rate of 8 percent annually, for the next twenty-five years. The demand for electricity during this period will grow at the rate of 7.4 percent annually. According to conservative estimates, this will translate into 800GW in 2031-32 as compared to the installed capacity, which stood at 160GW as of 2010.8 India therefore will have to embark upon aggressive diversification of energy sources and the concomitant infrastructure development because even with tremendous progress since independence, India still ranks low in per capita electricity consumption in the world, which is around 639kWh.9

Well aware of this reality and with the intention to reduce its carbon footprint, the GoI has taken several steps to increase the proportion of renewables in the energy mix. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) has set ambitious targets of increasing the solar energy capacity to 20,000MW by 2022 with both grid and off-grid connections. Various incentives and policies have been introduced to promote and achieve this target.10 This plan follows or rather has drawn inspiration from the wind energy sector of India that currently stands fifth in the world with 14,158MW of installed capacity and has enjoyed healthy investments from both public and private sectors.11 According to a poll taken by the global consulting firm KPMG, India remained the third most favoured destination as far as investment in the renewable energy sector was concerned. The head of KPMG India division, Richard Rekhy, acknowledged India’s fast developing supportive policy and regulatory framework critical for the renewable sector’s growth.12

Renewables are an important source of energy for India and without doubt the magnitude will increase, nonetheless it will be some decades before its full potential can be exploited in form of commercial viability. In the span of years that lie ahead, India’s dependence on fossil fuel will skyrocket. Coal accounts for nearly 70 percent of energy generation in India and almost 20 percent will be imported this year.13 By 2030 as estimated, coal will account for 45 percent of energy generation because it will remain comparatively a cheaper option. Similarly oil will account for roughly 35 percent in the fuel mix and the natural gas will remain in the range of 7-10 percent.14 But increasing dependence on fossil fuels will also place India at the mercy of international price fluctuations as almost 90 percent of the oil will be imported by 2025. Major oil shocks were already experienced during the 1973 OPEC crisis. There is greater propensity of similar instances repeating in future due to instability in the Middle East combined with spiralling rise in the fuel prices.

Recent report of International Energy Agency (IEA) projected the use of natural gas to increase in future in tandem with the rise in production.15 Significant competition will be faced by India in this sector also. With culmination of the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal, the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline deal faced a complete closure on the grounds that India was already worried about the transit fees to be incurred and the U.S. disapproval of the project acted as a final push. India attempted to make similar arrangements in the past with Bangladesh and Myanmar, however the deals did not come to fruition due to internal political conditions in the former and competing Chinese arrangements in the latter.16 Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project was considered a much heralded achievement by India in December last year, however according to the latest information, disagreements have arisen between India and Turkmenistan on price per MBtu (Million British Thermal Unit) with Turkmenistan demanding $14-15 per MBtu and India limiting it to $12.67. One anonymous Indian official expounded, ‘Why to invest in infrastructure, if we can import relatively cheaper LNG’.17 The crux is, despite the projected increase in natural gas, more and more countries are going to shift to the usage of natural gas thereby increasing pressure on the available suppliers. For instance, the Caspian region known for its deposits of natural gas has already become a zone of contestation.

Considering the above explained scenarios, the nuclear energy option stands out as an important component in India’s energy mix. The GoI plans to increase the share of nuclear energy to 25 percent by 2050, roughly reaching a target of 20,000MW by 2020 from the current 5000MW, apparently a threefold increase.18 If these targets are met it will be a useful alternative for India, amplifying self dependency of the country whilst proving to be a major source of energy security. The Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal has provided a valuable opening for India to trade internationally in hitherto prohibited nuclear fuel and technology that too strikingly without being a party to Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Before the waiver, India’s civilian nuclear industry already suffered setbacks due to shortages of uranium. In addition to greater power generation capacity, the nuclear energy has also garnered significant attention due to the advance in designs and shifting preferences to thorium fuel cycles. As the owner of 30 percent of known thorium deposits in the world, India will be a major beneficiary if this technology turns out to be successful and widespread. Research in thorium fuel cycles in U.S., China and India has by now accelerated. Additionally, India has an expertise in Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) that is capable of running on thorium fuel cycle and is expected to become operational by 2012.19 Another advantage of the thorium based fuel cycle is production of less plutonium and other transuranic waste as well. Reversal of the nuclear program at this critical juncture when new discoveries are unfolding therefore makes no sense.

The quest for energy security has also led other Asian-Pacific countries to pursue their nuclear energy programs without being deterred by the Fukushima incident. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, all have major programs underway with no indications of any reversal although safety evaluations have been taken into purview. China accounts for the largest bulk of ongoing projects, which currently stands at twenty-four reactors. South Korea already derives 35 percent of its energy from nuclear plus other six reactors are under construction.20 The question thus arises as to why India should reverse the nuclear program when its peers have shown no signs of doing so.

India’s quest for energy security has made the nuclear option a very attractive one. Since renewables will take a few more years to become commercially viable, dependence on fossil fuel will augment so as to satiate the thirst of India’s robust developing economy. Considering India’s present and future rise, nuclear energy does become an important aspect in India’s quest for energy security. Besides improved designs and safety measures have made nuclear energy safer as Peimani rightly points out that of the four hundred and forty-one total plants in operation worldwide, only three accidents have occurred so far, namely, the Three Mile Island (1979), The Chernobyl (1986) and the most recent Fukushima (2011). This is a relatively good record for such industry.21 The underlining argument is that all forms of energy have to be developed and harnessed by India, including nuclear. So revisiting the central question once again: Does India need nuclear energy? Yes, of course.

Notes:
1. Kumar, Krishna, ‘Shiv Sena stokes Fukushima fear to fan Jaitapur protest’, 20 April 2011, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story/shiv-sena-stokes-fukushima-fear-to-fan-jaitapur-protest/1/135760.html, downloaded on 1 June 2011, Kumar, Krishna, ‘Sharad Pawar backs anti-Jaitapur protestors, Congress unhappy’, 16 May 2011, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story/sharad-pawar-backs-anti-jaitapur-protestors-congress-unhappy/1/138285.html, downloaded on 22 May 2011.
2. Bidwai, Praful, ‘Clear and present danger’, 1 May 2011, http://www.hindustantimes.com/StoryPage/Print/692084.aspx, downloaded on 22 May 2011.
3. Betigeri, Aarti, ‘Japan’s Fukushima crisis drives protests over world’s largest nuclear plant in India’, 11 May 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2011/0511/Japan-s-Fukushima-crisis-drives-protests-over-world-s-largest-nuclear-plant-in-India, downloaded on 16 May 2011.
4. PTI, ‘Decision on Jaitapur compensation package soon: Narayan Rane’, 26 May 2011, http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report_decision-on-jaitapur-compensation-package-soon-narayan-rane_1547919, downloaded on 6 June 2011.
5. Bidwai, Praful et al., (2011), ‘Courting nuclear disaster in Maharashtra: Why Jaitapur project must be scrapped’, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), p. 10, http://www.cndpindia.org/download.php?view.66, downloaded on 2 June 2011.
6. Bidwai, Praful (2011), ibid., p. 32.
7. Sunderarajan, P, ‘Going ahead with Jaitapur project ‘insensitive’’, 30 April 2011, http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/article1981408.ece, downloaded on 28 May 2011.
8. ESMAP (2010), ‘Unleashing the potential of renewable energy in India’, South Asia Energy Unit, Sustainable Development Department, The World Bank, p.14, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INDIAEXTN/Resources/Reports-Publications/Unleashing_potential_of_Renewable_Energy_in_India, downloaded on 30 May 2011.
9. ESMAP (2010), ibid., p. 6.
10. Abdullah, Farooq, ‘India’s renewable future: Challenges and prospects’, 4 February 2011 http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2011/02/indias-renewable-future-challenges-and-prospects, downloaded on 2 June 2011.
11. Indian Wind Energy Association, http://www.inwea.org/aboutwindenergy.htm, downloaded on 4 June 2011.
12. ‘India ranked third most favoured renewable investment destination’, Commodity Online, 8 June 2011, http://www.commodityonline.com/news/India-ranked-third-most-favoured-renewable-investment-destination-39749-3-1.htm, downloaded on 12 June 2011.
13. Asia Sentinel, ‘India’s coal consumption skyrockets’, 28 May 2010, http://asiancorrespondent.com/33035/indias-coal-consumption-skyrockets/, downloaded on 4 June 2011, Mukherjee, Krittivas, ‘Despite hurdles, India sees 2011/12 coal output growth’, 9 March 2011, http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/03/09/idINIndia-55440420110309, downloaded on 7 June 2011.
14. TERI, National Energy Map for India: Technology Vision 2030 Summary for Policy Makers, New Delhi, TERI Press, p. 15.
15. ‘International Energy Agency says gas in golden age’, 7 June 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-13677732, downloaded on 8 June 2011.
16. ‘US opposes Iran gas pipeline project’, 23 March 2007, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/todays-paper/article1653235.ece, downloaded on 12 June 2011, Hate, Vibhuti (2006), India’s Energy Dilemma, South Asia Monitor Number 98, http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/sam98.pdf, downloaded on 9 June 2011.
17. Jayaswal, Rajeev, ‘India caps offer price for Turkmenistan gas at $12.67’, The Economic Times, 28 April 2011, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-04-28/news/29483058_1_tapi-pipeline-dauletabad-gas-field-gas-at-competitive-rates, downloaded on 20 May 2011.
18. ‘Nuclear Power in India’, World Nuclear Association, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf53.html, downloaded on 12 June 2011.
19. ‘Nuclear Power in India’, ibid., ‘500MW Fast Breeder Reactor Prototype to be Ready by First Quarter of 2012’, 11 November 2010, http://www.india-defence.com/reports-4615, downloaded on 12 June 2011.
20. Peimani, Hooman (2011), ‘Nuclear Energy in Asia: A Post-Fukushima Perspective’, Journal of Energy Security, May Issue, http://www.ensec.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=309:nuclear-energy-in-asia-a-post-fukushima-perspective&catid=116:content0411&Itemid=375, downloaded on 5 June 2011.
21. Peimani, Hooman (2011), ibid.


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Tanvi Pate

Tanvi Pate

Tanvi Pate holds degrees in International Relations from The University of Leicester (BA) and The University of Warwick (MA) and was a research intern at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Her main areas of interest include the India-US and India-China relations.

One thought on “Does India Need Nuclear Energy? – Analysis

  • June 24, 2011 at 9:03 am
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    Thorium as nuclear fuel requires fissile feed and can best be described as a supplementary fuel in addition to uranium.
    PFBR is designed to hold thorium in the blanket to conserve the neutrons loss and convert a part to fissile U233 from thorium.
    India needs Nuclear energy to supplement the energy from indigenous coal and to act as source of fast reactors/thorium fueled reactors.

    Reply

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