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Editorial of the Day: Should India Consider Phasing Out Nuclear Power? (The Hindu)

Context: The article is discussing the role of nuclear power in the context of increasing adoption of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and the question of whether nuclear power is still a relevant option for a fossil-free future. It highlights the shutting down of the last nuclear power plant  of Germany and the struggle France faces to replace its ageing reactors, which raises questions about the cost and safety of nuclear power. It further explores whether nuclear energy should be phased out amidst the variable nature of wind and solar power to obtain firm power without nuclear energy.

Should India Consider Phasing Out Nuclear Power Background

What is nuclear Energy?

Nuclear energy is a type of energy that is generated by the process of nuclear reactions- either nuclear fission or nuclear fusion. The energy released during these reactions can be harnessed and used to produce electricity, heat, or other forms of energy.

  • Nuclear fission: It is a process in which the nucleus of an atom is split into two or more smaller nuclei, releasing a large amount of energy in the process.
    • This process is used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity.
    • One example of nuclear fission is the reaction that occurs in a nuclear reactor when uranium atoms are split into smaller atoms.
  • Nuclear fusion: It is a process in which two or more atomic nuclei come together to form a single, more massive nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy in the process.
    • This process occurs naturally in stars, including our own sun.
    • One example of nuclear fusion is the reaction that occurs in a hydrogen bomb.

Significance of Nuclear Energy:

  • Low carbon emissions: Nuclear energy is a low-carbon source of power that does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, unlike fossil fuels.
  • Reliability: Nuclear power plants can run for long periods of time without interruption and are highly reliable sources of electricity.
  • High energy density: Nuclear fuel contains a high energy density, meaning that it can produce a large amount of energy from a small amount of fuel.
  • Independence from fossil fuels: Nuclear power does not depend on fossil fuels, which are finite resources subject to price fluctuations.
  • Base load power: Nuclear power can provide reliable base load power to complement intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
  • Economic benefits: Nuclear power plants create jobs and can contribute to local and national economies.
  • Energy security: Nuclear power can help to increase energy security by reducing reliance on foreign sources of oil and gas.
  • Advanced technologies: Nuclear power research and development has led to advances in technologies like medical imaging, food irradiation, and space exploration.

Challenges of Nuclear Energy:

  • Nuclear accidents: Nuclear accidents can have catastrophic consequences, as seen in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
  • Radioactive waste: Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years and must be carefully stored to prevent contamination.
    • The Fukushima disaster in 2011 resulted in a significant release of radioactive materials into the environment. The radioactive materials came from the damaged reactor cores and spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. These materials (nuclear waste), can remain radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years.
  • Proliferation risk: The technology and materials used in nuclear power plants can be used to make nuclear weapons, making nuclear power a proliferation risk.
  • High cost: Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and maintain, and the high costs can make it difficult for countries to justify building new plants.
  • Limited fuel supply: Uranium, the primary fuel used in nuclear power plants, is a finite resource that is mined from a limited number of countries.
  • Security risks: Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage facilities can be targets for terrorism or other security threats.
  • Decommissioning challenges: Decommissioning nuclear power plants at the end of their useful life is a complex and costly process that can take decades to complete.
  • Public opposition: Nuclear energy is a polarising issue that can generate significant public opposition due to concerns about safety and waste storage.

India’s nuclear Energy potential:

  • India has significant reserves of thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive element that can be used as a fuel in nuclear reactors.
  • With the world’s largest reserves of thorium, estimated at around 360,000 tonnes, India has the potential to become a major player in the nuclear energy sector.
  • In addition to thorium, India also has significant reserves of uranium (70,000 tonnes), which can be used as a fuel in nuclear reactors.

India’s Current Status in Nuclear Energy:

  • India has been operating nuclear power plants for several decades. Currently, there are 23 nuclear reactors in operation in India, with a total installed capacity of 6,780 MW. These reactors are located in various parts of the country, including Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. In addition to these operational reactors, there are several more reactors under construction, which are expected to add around 8,000 MW of nuclear power capacity.
  • Nuclear energy currently accounts for around 3% of India’s total electricity generation. The majority of India’s electricity comes from thermal power plants, which burn coal and other fossil fuels. While India has made significant progress in renewable energy, with a goal of achieving 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030, nuclear energy is still seen as an important part of the country’s energy mix.
  • India has several ongoing and planned nuclear energy projects. One notable project is the construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, which is a joint venture between India and Russia. The plant currently has two operational reactors, with two more under construction. When completed, the plant is expected to have a total capacity of 6,000 MW.
  • Another notable project is the development of the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which is being developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). The AHWR is a next-generation nuclear reactor that uses thorium as fuel, making it an attractive option for India’s abundant thorium reserves.
India's Current Status in Nuclear Energy
India’s Current Status in Nuclear Energy

Prospects for Nuclear Energy in India:

Prospects for Nuclear Energy in India
Prospects for Nuclear Energy in India

India’s Three-Stage Nuclear Power Programme

  • India’s three-stage nuclear power programme was formulated by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s to secure the country’s long term energy independence, through the use of uranium and thorium reserves found in the monazite sands of coastal regions of South India.
  • The ultimate focus of the programme is on enabling the thorium reserves of India to be utilized in meeting the country’s energy requirements.
Stage I – Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor [PHWR] The first stage of India’s nuclear program involves the use of PHWRs fueled by natural uranium.

These reactors generate electricity while also producing plutonium-239 as a by-product.

Stage II – Fast Breeder Reactor The second stage of India’s nuclear program involves the use of FBRs fueled by a mix of plutonium-239 and uranium-238.

These reactors generate more plutonium-239 than they consume and can also convert thorium into uranium-233, which can be used as fuel in the third stage.

Stage III – Thorium Based Reactors The third and final stage of India’s nuclear program involves the use of thorium-based reactors fueled by uranium-233 produced in FBRs.

These reactors are designed to use thorium as a fuel, which is abundant in India, and have the potential to provide a sustainable source of nuclear energy for the country.

Decoding the Editorial

The article discusses the outlook for nuclear power, especially when solar and wind power are becoming far more popular.

  • Global Inclination towards Nuclear Energy: The outlook for nuclear power globally is mixed. Nuclear power is seen as a necessary component of achieving low-carbon or carbon-free electricity generation which means, without scaling up nuclear power, it won’t be possible to decarbonise the electricity sector.
    • This is because wind and solar power are variable and may not be able to provide a reliable, constant supply of electricity, while nuclear power can provide firm power that can help balance out the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.
    • While some countries like Japan and South Korea are increasing their reliance on nuclear power, others like Germany are phasing it out.
    • The recent political events, such as the Ukraine war, have led to a renewed interest in nuclear power, even in Europe and the US.
    • China has been investing heavily in nuclear power and continues to do so.
    • The UK has also emphasized the importance of nuclear power in decarbonizing the electricity sector.
  • Significance of Adopting Nuclear Power:
    • Nuclear power is low-carbon and can provide firm, dispatchable power to the electric grid.
    • However, there is ongoing debate about whether nuclear power is “green” due to concerns about cost, safety, and environmental impact.
    • Nuclear plants require only 25 tonnes of low enriched uranium fuel per year for a 1,000 MW plant, while a coal plant requires approximately five million tonnes of coal.
    • Even when considering the full life-cycle costs, nuclear power is a low-carbon option that can complement intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar power.
    • The challenge of relying solely on wind and solar power, which can be intermittent and variable may not provide a constant supply of electricity.
    • While Energy storage technologies like batteries may help address this challenge, they can be expensive and have environmental impacts of their own.
  • Challenges:
    • Resistance to nuclear energy is often driven by concerns about safety, nuclear proliferation, etc.
    • However, the speaker notes that some of these concerns have diminished, in part because of advancements in passive safety designs for nuclear reactors.
    • These designs do not require active cooling pumps and can control temperature and waste-heat even if power fails.
    • Also, the worst nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl, was a design that is not used anymore, and passive safety designs are now standard, including at Kudankulam.
    • However, risks associated with other energy sources, such as coal mines or transport accidents, when evaluating the safety of nuclear energy should also be considered.
    • Cost is also a challenge for nuclear energy. However, new designs like small modular reactors are being developed and could potentially address the cost structure of nuclear energy going forward.
    • Legal responsibility for damages caused by a nuclear incident has also been a challenge. Liability concerns remain a significant obstacle to progress in nuclear energy projects, such as the proposed installation of French European Pressurised Reactors at Jaitapur, Maharashtra.

Way Forward

  • India has a limited potential for hydropower and it faces a number of challenges in transitioning away from coal-based power generation.
  • India’s nuclear power capacity is only around 3.2%, which is significantly lower than its coal capacity.
  • In order to achieve the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, India needs to significantly increase its nuclear power capacity.
  • However, the current monopoly held by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited is hindering growth in this sector.
    • Therefore, the civilian nuclear program needs to be restructured to allow other government companies like NTPC to enter the market.
  • The speaker also suggests that a combination of small modular reactors and large reactors will be needed to achieve the required capacity, which cannot be achieved by a single company.
  • There is a need for a diverse portfolio of energy options as no single technology, including solar or batteries, can solve all our energy problems. Rather, a combination of technologies from both inside and outside the nuclear sector is necessary.
  • A mix of supply-side and demand-side solutions is needed to address the challenges of energy production and consumption.

Beyond the Editorial

Need for focusing on nuclear energy in India:

  • For ensuring energy security: The recurring events of massive power outages and energy crisis has once again highlighted the pitfall in India’s energy profile i.e. over dependence on coal energy. Around 55% of our energy needs are met by coal based energy which is a scarce resource. Hence there is a need for diversification of our energy profile for ensuring energy security. With vast untapped uranium and thorium reserves, nuclear energy can be a game changer in this regard.
  • Growing energy needs: According to ‘India Energy Outlook 2021’, India will make up the biggest share of energy demand growth at 25% over the next two decades, as it overtakes EU as the world’s 3rd biggest energy consumer by 2030. Given the importance of clean energy in the era of Climate Change, nuclear energy is a viable option in addressing our growing energy needs.
  • Clean energy source: Nuclear power plants produce massive amounts of carbon-free electricity. The thermal energy from nuclear reactors may also be used to decarbonize other energy intensive sectors such as transportation- the largest contributor to carbon pollution.
  • Small land footprint: Despite producing massive amounts of carbon-free power, nuclear energy produces more electricity on less land than any other clean energy source & nuclear fuel is extremely dense. To put that in perspective, it would need more than 3 million solar panels to produce the same amount of power as a typical commercial reactor or more than 430 wind turbines.
  • Reliable energy source: Unlike other clean energy sources such as wind and solar, nuclear power plants run 24×7 & they are designed to operate for longer stretches and refuel every 1.5 to 2 years. Nuclear has the highest capacity factor of any other energy source.
  • Energy poverty: Although India is the fourth largest energy consumer in the world, it continues to remain energy poor i.e. its per capita electricity consumption stood at just over 1200 KWh in 2021, whereas developed countries average is around 15,000 KWh. Thus, affordable nuclear energy can be used to address our energy poverty.
  • Sustainable development: Nuclear power as clean and affordable energy is essential for realising SDG7 which is linked to all other SDGs.
Need for focusing on nuclear energy in India
Need for focusing on nuclear energy in India

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