It is the fuel of the future. For an energy-starved nation like India, nuclear energy presents huge opportunities, but it also poses immense challenges in implementation.
Currently, nuclear energy provides less than 3 per cent of India´s power requirements. However, there are ambitious plans to increase it to 25 per cent by 2050. With the doors opened for foreign investment, technology and fuel, this may become a reality. In September this year, the Indian government signed a civil nuclear agreement with Australia and one with Japan is in the offing. India already has similar agreements with the US, Canada, the UK, South Korea and France, among other countries. In addition, some international players are also involved in various areas of the nuclear sector including construction of nuclear reactors.
The Indian government is also planning to take several measures to boost nuclear energy production. The reasons are obvious. In addition to being considered a clean energy, large amounts of energy are obtained with little fuel, saving not only on raw materials but also on transport, handling and nuclear fuel extraction costs. Sekhar Basu, Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) weighs the pros and cons of nuclear energy as against other forms of energy: ´Fossil fuel resources are limited and also suffer from the effects of CO2 and polluting gas emissions. Coal comes with additional problem of mining and transportation issues. On the other hand, nuclear power stations operate at 90 per cent capacity factor and need fuel of much lesser quantity. A comparison can be made by taking account of the fact that a 1000 MWe coal-fired power station needs transportation of 5 million tonnes of coal every year compared to only about 200 tonnes of fuel per nuclear unit of same capacity. While 40 per cent of the coal becomes ash and the rest is converted to oxides of carbon, less than 1 per cent of the fuel from a nuclear reactor becomes radioactive and requires long-term storage.´ According to Basu, in the long run, fossil fuels will be exhausted and nuclear and renewables will be the only available options. ´Utilisation of uranium only in thermal reactors will result in exhaustion of natural uranium after some time. However, recycling of uranium in fast reactors and later utilisation of thorium can give long-term energy security for the country,´ he adds.
The government has been attempting to boost nuclear energy with several measures. It is planning to set up five energy parks by 2032 to raise the generation of nuclear energy.
It has earmarked nuclear parks for foreign-origin reactors, reserving separate sites exclusively for US, French and Russian projects. The reservations though have generated mixed reactions, some even terming it as ´anti-market´. In addition, some industry professionals aver that the energy benefits will come at enormous economic costs because the US and French reactors are likely to be twice as expensive as indigenous plants, in terms of per megawatt of installed generating capacity. Further, the reactor deals are to be signed government-to-government without open bidding and transparency.
There are indications that the government may open up the sector to private players. As per the Atomic Energy Act 1962, only government-owned enterprises can be operators of nuclear power plants. Hence the key players in this sector have been Nuclear Power Corporation of India, NTPC, Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd (BHAVINI), Uranium Corporation of India and BARC.
However, the Act permits private participation in the construction of nuclear plants, manufacture and supply of nuclear equipment etc., and several private companies have played a significant role in these areas. HCC is one such major player having built over 50 per cent of installed nuclear power capacity in India.
´The nuclear power industry offers attractive opportunities to private players. A number of companies are involved in the construction of power plants, supply of raw materials, manufacturing and supply of critical power equipments like turbines and generators, manufacture of reactor vessels or calandria etc.,´ points out Arun Karambelkar, President and Chief Executive Officer, HCC Ltd. ´The US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement signed in 2008 has opened up more areas for private participation. India can now import reactors and nuclear fuel from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This offers additional strategic advantage to Indian private players as they can collaborate with foreign technology partners in various areas´, he adds. HCC has many firsts to its credit in this area - the company built the first nuclear power plant at Tarapur, Maharashtra in 1969 and India´s first indigenous nuclear power plant at Rajasthan, Kota in 1971 and India´s largest nuclear power plant at Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, of 2,000 MW capacity.
If the government amends the Atomic Act to enable private participation in operation, the opportunities are likely to grow manifold.
While nuclear energy presents huge opportunities, it also poses immense challenges in implementation. Karambelkar lists out some: ´Supply chain bottlenecks, non-availability of quality materials, vendor availability, inadequate availability of raw materials, shortage of personnel in plant design capabilities, project management and skilled and semi-skilled workers. Designs must be improved so that level of standardisation increases in nuclear power plants. The Vision 2020 plan outlined by DAE talks about achieving 20,000 MW of nuclear generation capacity by 2020 with approximate capital investment of about Rs 1,20,000 crore over the next seven years. This program will also see larger unit sizes and mega-projects with complex technological requirements to be built in lesser time. Industry has to play a more proactive role and develop capabilities. If proper initiatives are taken, this can be transformed into a huge opportunity to Indian companies,´ he elaborates.
The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 has raised several objections due to certain clauses like providing a civil liability for nuclear damage and prompt compensation to the victims of a nuclear incident through a no-fault liability to the operator and capping the maximum amount of liability in case of each nuclear accident at a ridiculously low Rs 500 crore to be paid by the operator of the nuclear plant, and if the cost of the damages exceeds this amount, special drawing rights up to Rs 300 million to be paid by the Central government. Other than this, the bill contains certain clauses which if implemented will let free the manufacturer and supplier legally and to a large extent financially as well. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has also been filed against the Act at the Supreme Court of India in 2011, examining the constitutionality of the Act.
Nuclear power provides clean electricity at a very low cost, and it does not produce greenhouse gases. However, these power plants produce radioactive wastes. The potential danger from escaped radiation from an accident has been a great cause for concern. Basu, however, assures that several safety measures are in place. ´India has stringent safety standards as practiced in the world. The regulatory authorities carry out multi-tier review at all stages on a regular basis. Operations undergo rigorous training and licensing process on a continuous basis. To isolate the radioactivity in the spent fuel, it is reprocessed to separate uranium and plutonium, which is less than 1 per cent of the spent fuel. While uranium and plutonium go back into the reactors for power production, the nuclear waste is vitrified in a glass matrix and stored in overground storage facilities for cooling. The quantity involved is only 4 tonnes per 1000 MWe reactor operating for one year. After cooling for well over 30 years, this will be ready for geological disposal. We have developed partitioning technology, which will reduce the wastes requiring geological disposal to 1/10th of the original quantity. Work is also progressing towards the development of technologies, where these wastes will be incinerated in specially designed fast reactors or accelerator driven sub-critical system. In summary we do not foresee any requirement of disposal of geological data for next 50 years even with the present level of technology deployed,´ he says.
BARC is working in all areas of nuclear science and technology including research reactors, power reactors, front end fuel cycle technologies involving exploration and mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication and also the back-end of the fuel cycle. BARC is planning to build Advance Heavy Water Reactors, which will be able to utilise thorium as fuel and also Indian Pressurised Water Reactors.
Notwithstanding the boost being given to nuclear energy in India, the viability of nuclear energy remains a question mark. Global experiences show that the viability of nuclear power is unclear, partly because of widespread government guarantees and subsidies. In the US, nuclear plants have reportedly been dogged by delays and operational problems, making some of them white elephants. France has become the most successful nuclear generator in the world with its strategy of building a large number of plants on standardised designs. This has lowered capital costs, and reduced delays and operational glitches.
Evidently there are several weighty questions for which there are no clear answers today as far as development of nuclear energy is concerned.
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