Nuclear Energy: Status, Advantages and Concerns – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

Several recents incidents have highlighted the hazards associated with Nuclear Energy. First, there was an attack near the Nuclear Power Plant in Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine (Europe’s largest Nuclear plant). In South Korea, a wildfire approached the Hanul Nuclear Power Plant triggering high-level alert and ‘all-out efforts’ to avoid a nuclear disaster. These incidents could have transformed into Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011) like nuclear disasters. This has raised concerns regarding the costs associated with Nuclear Energy vis-a-vis the benefits, calling for a reconsideration of Nuclear Energy in the Energy Policy of nations.

What is Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear power is the use of nuclear reactions to produce electricity. Nuclear power can be obtained from nuclear fission, nuclear decay and nuclear fusion reactions. Presently, the vast majority of electricity from nuclear power is produced by nuclear fission of uranium and plutonium in nuclear power plants. The energy released from the controlled nuclear fission is used to heat water into steam. The steam turns the turbines which generates electricity through attached generators.

The image depicts the conversion of Nuclear Energy into Electricity

Source: World Nuclear Association

What is current status of Nuclear Energy in the world?

The nuclear energy came into vogue in the 1950s and witnessed exponential rise in the 1960s and 1970s as it was considered a clean alternative to coal and oil. However, the share of nuclear energy started stagnating from 1980s-90s onward. The number of operable nuclear reactors producing energy were 416 in 1990 and but have risen only to 438 in 2021 in 32 countries. Similarly, in 1996 17.5% of the world’s electricity came from nuclear power plants; by 2020, this figure had declined to just ~10%.

The image depicts number of operable nuclear energy reactors in the world

Source: World Nuclear Association, IAEA

Several European Countries have high share of nuclear energy in their electricity mix like France (70%), Slovakia (53%), Hungary (48%), Bulgaria (40%) etc. However many countries like Germany (2022) and Belgium (2025) have announced phase-outs of nuclear energy. In 2008, the U.S. government had projected an expansion of nuclear capacity to 114.9 GW by 2030. However, in 2021, it predicted that capacity would contract to 83.3 GW. Many other countries are expected to follow the path of phasing out nuclear energy in the near future.

What is the scenario of Nuclear Energy in India?

India had embarked on nuclear energy path right since Independence. The Atomic Energy Act of 1948 created the Indian Atomic Energy Commission ‘to provide for the development and control of atomic energy and purposes connected therewith’. The country’s first two reactors at Tarapur, Maharashtra were imported (commissioned 1969). But the 220 MWe Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu was the first completely indigenous nuclear power plant. These reactors were commissioned during 1983-85.

At present, India has 23 operable nuclear reactors and 7 nuclear reactors under construction. Nuclear power is the fifth-largest source of electricity in the country after coal, gas, hydroelectricity and wind power. It comprises around 2% of the total energy mix. The Indian Government operates all nuclear plants through the Nuclear Power Corporation of India.

Read More: India’s Three Stage Nuclear Power Programme

On December 15, 2021, the Indian government informed Parliament that it plans to build ’10 indigenous reactors in fleet mode’ and had granted ‘in principle approval’ for 28 additional reactors. This includes 24 reactors which would be imported from France, the U.S. and Russia.

Why are the benefits of Nuclear Energy?

Resource Base: India has vast thorium reserves which could be exploited using a thermal breeder reactor. A significant amount of thorium reserves are found in the monazite sands of coastal regions of South India. 

Energy Sovereignty: India’s energy mix is dominated by Coal and Oil. Low reserves of oil in India create import dependence. Increasing nuclear energy in the energy mix help India attain energy sovereignty. 

Clean Fuel: The carbon emissions from a nuclear power plant are much lower than a traditional thermal power plants. Nuclear Energy has the potential to enable India to meet its Climate Goals.

Economic Benefits: Oil and gas constitute a major component of India’s import bill and play a crucial role in raising the country’s fiscal deficit. Focusing on Nuclear energy will reduce demand for imports and the country’s current account deficit.

National Security: Nuclear Research enabled India to acquire nuclear weapons. Several defense experts have pointed out the importance of ‘nuclear deterrence’ in the context of Russia-Ukraine conflict. Though India has been an ardent supporter of global disarmament, there can be no denial that the ‘deterrent effect’ of India’s nuclear arsenal has checked the belligerence of India’s hostile neighbours.

What steps have been taken by the Government for the advancement of Nuclear Energy?

Atomic Energy Commission for India: It is the governing body of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Government of India. The DAE is under the direct charge of the Prime Minister. The functions of the Atomic Energy Commission are: (a) Organize research in atomic science in the country; (b) Train atomic scientists in the country; (c) Promote nuclear research in the commission’s own laboratories in India; (d) Undertake prospecting of atomic minerals in India and to extract such minerals for use on an industrial scale.

Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC): It is India’s premier nuclear research facility, headquartered in Trombay, Mumbai, Maharashtra. It is a multidisciplinary research program essential for India’s nuclear program.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited: It is wholly owned by the Government of India and is responsible for the generation of electricity from nuclear power. NPCIL is administered by the Department of Atomic Energy.

Civil Nuclear Deals: India has signed civil nuclear agreements with 14 countries as of 2016. This includes Argentina, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Japan,Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States etc.

What are the concerns associated with Nuclear Energy?

Nuclear Disaster: Nuclear fission reactions occurring in nuclear reactors are highly radioactive. Radiation leaks from reactors can prove fatal for human beings as nuclear radiation can cause genetic defects, mutations and other physiological defects. Genetic defects can cripple future generations as well. Radiation leaks can occur due to technical failure (like Chernobyl, 1986) or natural disaster (like Fukushima, 2011). 

The costs associated with a Nuclear disaster are unimaginable. The clean-up costs of Fukushima disaster have been estimated in excess of US$ 600 billion. It explains the reluctance of the suppliers of nuclear technology to India to accept the liability of a nuclear disaster.

Cost Overruns: Nuclear power plants are capital intensive and recent nuclear builds have suffered major cost overruns. An illustrative example is the V.C. Summer nuclear project in South Carolina (U.S.) where costs rose so sharply that the project was abandoned after an expenditure of over US$ 9 billion.

Outdated Technology: Amongst the 24 foreign reactors with ‘in principle’ approval, six are of the VVER (water-water energy reactor) design that has had multiple operational problems at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. Further, Twelve reactors are proposed to be imported from the U.S., including at least six AP1000 reactors — the same design that was abandoned in South Carolina.

Protests by Locals: Safety concerns following the Fukushima accident have led to protests against each planned reactor e.g., locals turned against” the Mithivirdi nuclear project in Gujarat post the disaster. Moreover, the reluctance of equipment manufacturers/suppliers to accept liability in case of a nuclear disaster, reduces the reliability of their claims regarding robustness of their equipment.

Availability of Cheap Alternatives: Solar and Wind are widely emerging as cheap and effective alternatives to Nuclear Energy. They promise to provide electricity between INR 2-4/unit. On the other hand, the DAE had estimated the cost of production of electricity in the proposed Jaitapur and Mithi Virdi Nuclear Power Plants to be INR 9 and INR 12 per unit respectively. 

Inadequate Foreign Research:  Since 2010, an incompatibility between India’s civil liability law and international conventions has limited the provision of foreign technology in nuclear research. Further, India is not a member of the Nuclear Supplier group and has not signed the Non-Proliferation treaty. 

What should be the approach going forward?

First, India should continue to enhance the proportion of solar and wind energy in the electricity mix. The approach towards expansion of nuclear energy should be cautious, given the concerns.

Second, focus should now be placed on Nuclear Fusion technology which is safer than nuclear fission  and has vast reserves in the form of ocean water.

Read More: Nuclear Fusion Technology: Evolution, Challenges and Future Potential – Explained, pointwise

Third, the safety and management of nuclear facilities should be duly augmented. There should be constant updating of skills possessed by nuclear operators along with regular surprise audits.   

Fourth, the masses should be cautiously and comprehensively sensitized about the functioning of nuclear power plants using highly intellectual individuals having mass appeal e.g., Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam himself visited Ramesahwaram and sensitized the masses before the establishment of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant.

Conclusion

Nuclear Energy shouldn’t be outrightly rejected considering the strategic implications from the perspective of national security, as well as vast the potential of Nuclear Fusion technology. However the approach towards establishing more nuclear power plants should be cautious. It is advisable that India should continue to place a greater focus on other viable alternatives like solar and wind in the near future. 

Source: The Hindu

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