By Dr Manpreet Sethi*
On 22 July 2020, Unit 3 of the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS)—India’s 23rd nuclear reactor—attained criticality. At 700 MWe capacity, it is a scaled-up version of earlier variants of pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs).
It is currently the largest capacity reactor that India has indigenously designed and built, having started this journey with a series of 220 MWe reactors. These were first built in collaboration with Canada, and then through indigenous design and construction post-1974. By the 1990s, Indian nuclear scientists and engineers were ready to scale up from 220 MWe. Accordingly, two reactors of 540 MWe were commissioned at Tarapur in 2005 and 2006.
Thereafter, India decided to avail advantages from economies of scale and volume by upgrading to 700 MWe capacity reactors and standardising this design for ‘fleet construction’. As part of this plan, the construction of Kakrapar-3 started in November 2010. The plant was to have been completed in five years, but it took double that time to go critical.
Nine more such plants are currently at varied stages of construction at different sites across India. One new plant is expected to be commissioned every year. This annual harvest will result from multiple factors such as maturity of planning, designs, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited’s (NPCIL) business sense, and increasing industry participation. In case this target is faithfully met, it will progressively add to the current nuclear share of 6780 MWe.
Questions are often raised about why India should continue to invest in nuclear power when even after 60 years of having been in the fray, it contributes only 2 per cent to national electricity generation. Should the focus not be on modern, renewable sources like solar and wind energy, which in just the past five years have taken the share of renewables from 13.2 to 23.3 per cent? Solar energy emerged as the star performer in this period, with a tenfold increase in capacity, while nuclear power added only a gigawatt of new capacity. What then is the rationale for retaining nuclear power in India’s energy mix, especially as countries in Europe are phasing it out?
In order to arrive at well-considered answers to these questions, some facts peculiar to India need to be understood. This is critical since there is a tendency to extrapolate a country’s energy choices to those being made by others. However, each has their own unique energy circumstances, and so must be their energy mix.
India is a developing nation with a billion plus population that is mostly young and aspirational. The country’s economy is dominated by the manufacturing and service sectors, which are energy-intensive. The first thing to note therefore is India’s electricity requirement. That India’s power generation capacity has increased hundred-fold since Independence, and it is today the third largest producer of electricity in the world, are creditable developments. Yet, at 1181 kWh in 2018-19, the per capita electricity consumption is low. This compares dismally with Canada’s 17179 kWh, 13338 kWh in the US, and about 3000 kWh even in China.
According to the Economic Survey tabled in Parliament in July 2019, India needs to quadruple electricity production to assure a reasonable quality of life to citizens. Such requirements make the choice for India: not between nuclear and renewables, but to include all available sources to draw every possible watt.
A second consideration is about availability of sources. Currently, India draws nearly 63 per cent of its total energy generation from thermal sources. Of this, nearly 55 per cent is met from coal and the rest from gas, with a miniscule amount from oil-fired plants. The worrisome part of this configuration is that India imports a significant part of its fossil fuels. For a large and rapidly developing country, bulk fuel imports raise economic and strategic vulnerabilities.
The third factor is electricity generation’s low carbon footprint. The large-scale use of coal has severe consequences for global warming and climate change, which are critical issues besides air pollution that face the planet today. India’s per capita carbon emissions stand at 1-1.2 tons, compared to the US’ 20 tons per capita. If a growing Indian economy continues to rely on coal, carbon emissions are bound to rise. This will impact national expenditure on domestic environmental and health measures, as also India’s global obligations. Nuclear energy, in this context, offers a meaningful alternative.
Of course, renewable energy is environmentally-friendly and is a natural choice for India. However, its limitations should also be understood. Firstly, solar and wind energy generation is land-intensive. Prime Minister Modi recently inaugurated Asia’s largest solar park in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh. It is spread over 1590 hectares, and will produce 750 MWe. In comparison, KAPS, which houses two operational 220 MWe units, one 700 MWe that has just gone critical, and another similar capacity unit under construction, occupies only 959 hectares. Of this area, nearly 500 hectares is covered by the green belt and 200 hectares by a township, with the actual plant site a minor fraction of the total.
Secondly, while nuclear plants have become completely indigenous, solar plants carry a dependence on imported technology and materials such as photovoltaic cells and battery and storage equipment. Another solar and wind power generation-related handicap is in energy storage, which makes them unsuitable as a baseload source of electricity.
Despite these challenges, renewables still merit a place in India’s energy basket. Given the country’s demographic growth, the aspirations of a young population, lack of indigenous fuel resources, and mounting climate change, it needs a long-term vision and commitment to safe generation of electricity that must include all sources.
Meanwhile, to enhance nuclear energy’s credibility and get people to better appreciate its role, three kinds of information campaigns are necessary: one, to explain the need for nuclear power as part of the country’s humongous electricity requirement; two, to highlight its environmental advantages; and three, to emphasise nuclear energy’s safety aspects. Nuclear establishments normally work as islands. But, to win public support, far greater interaction with people is needed.
In fact, the opportunities provided by milestone achievements such as the Kakrapar criticality must be seized upon to engage with the public. In these gloomy COVID-19 times, the nuclear establishment’s success in the midst of constraints and unprecedented social distancing protocols is no mean feat. This is a moment for nuclear cheer, and one that will hopefully visit the country every year.
*Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.