Nuclear power is neither evil nor the solution to India’s energy needs
The subject of nuclear energy has grown fraught in the past few weeks, with the nuclear plant at Kudankulam set to start generation, even as radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant reach a new deadly high. Global commentary remains divided along extremes. But the reality is mundane and falls somewhere in between — nuclear power is neither the epitome of evil nor a silver bullet for India’s energy needs. It is but an option for a country with enormous energy needs.
Germany plans to shut down all of its 17 nuclear sites by 2022, and Japan went without nuclear power for almost two years post Fukushima, until the election of a pro-nuclear power PM. Germany is financially and socially in a position to choose to forgo nuclear power in favour of alternatives, including renewables. These remain expensive — the German feed-in-tariff for small-scale rooftop solar power is still over Rs 10/ kWh. In contrast, utilities in India retail electricity at approximately Rs 4/ kWh, on average.
The economics of it is only one basis for comparing options. Different types of power are not equal. Proponents of nuclear power point out that it is carbon-free, which is only true at the fuel level, and not at the lifecycle level (especially once construction and decommissioning are factored in), but nuclear power fares well in comparison with coal. If the goal is carbon reduction, there are other options that are cheaper in terms of per tonne of carbon abated. But nuclear power offers something most of these options cannot: large, predictable baseload power.
Kudankulam’s nuclear reactors are 1,000 megawatt in size, which makes them the largest single generation units in India. The Southern Grid desperately needs baseload power, more so than the rest of India. The price of electricity from Kudankulam (reportedly around Rs 3/kWh), even with cost overruns, is expected to be lower than the price of energy from many new coal plants, especially if one factors in the rapidly rising costs of coal. But more than costs, there are issues of safety, alternatives, uncertainty and perception. The last is critical.
Worldwide, the nuclear power industry has been prone to three sins. First, the secrecy shrouding nuclear power led to suspicions of nefarious use, like weapons. Second, there has been an arrogance and a lack of public engagement. Third, there has been overconfidence about its value proposition, with the US Atomic Energy Commission chairman famously claiming nuclear energy would provide electricity “too cheap to metre”.
Nuclear power is actually relatively safe — coal mining deaths are much more common but the general public is mostly far removed from such deaths, both physically and psychologically. But when reactors fail, they can fail catastrophically, which is what people fear. The only major accident (in terms of fatalities) was at Chernobyl, where there was a flawed reactor design. Fukushima is reported to have led to zero deaths in the short run, although the possibility of cancer deaths over time continues to linger. Kudankulam’s VVER design is far safer than the RBMK design at Chernobyl. India has a good nuclear safety track record. The only incident so far, at Narora, measured three out of seven on the international nuclear event scale, and this was in the steam cycle side, not nuclear in nature. As for concerns about a rise in discharge water temperature, they apply to many of the coastal thermal power plants as well.
For all major projects, there are winners and losers. India has not managed to balance these competing interests fairly and transparently. For example, big dams leave people upstream flooded, while those downstream are beneficiaries of flood control. One needs fair compensation and electrification in the vicinity of any energy development project — not just near the plant, but also near the ore extraction site. The fact that Kudankulam’s enriched fuel would be imported is a bonus.
Public opposition to Kudankulam remains high, and we face the unfortunate equivalent of disapproving of a marriage after the fact. But we’re not the only ones to build a plant and not use it.
Maturity is another factor helping nuclear power. Not only is India mature in terms of fissile material, but it has built up a vast establishment in this domain —critics actually lament the over-emphasis on nuclear energy and space, perhaps at the expense of other science and technology support.
Nuclear power plants last decades — Kudankulam is designed for more than 60 years of operations — and their spent fuel/waste requires far longer handling and storage. India already has to manage the waste from dozens of reactors. Adding larger reactors will not change India’s multi-generational responsibilities, and international fuel supply, if not fuel take-back, will mean the environmental impact is even lower.
Nuclear power is not an either-or proposition vis-à-vis alternatives. So how do we handle something in between? Perhaps we need to double down on nuclear power, demanding it deliver more power than today’s 3 per cent share. Else, it should not be given the enormous government support it enjoys today.
The writer is a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, US. Views are personal