Nuclear energy is important, but take the public on board in this

  • Jairam Ramesh
  • Updated: Jan 29, 2015 23:24 IST

The deja vu is inescapable. The Narendra Modi-Barack Obama nuclear deal has once again given visions of a huge expansion of nuclear power generation in India, much as the George W Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement did almost a decade ago. But it would be unwise to celebrate right now. How two US companies — GE and Westinghouse — along with their Japanese partners will react will be known only when tough talks begin with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), which has been negotiating a deal for six 1,600 megawatt reactors at Jaitapur in Maharashtra with the French company Areva for over four years now. Liability and safety are not the only issues which are casting a long shadow on such negotiations: The issue of costs is proving contentious and will continue to be so. Even though we could not get new reactors, the Bush-Singh agreement had one tangible impact: Our nuclear reactors which were operating at around 50% of capacity a few years ago are now operating at about 83% capacity, thanks to uranium procured from other countries.

India needs nuclear power. Global warming has added an extra dimension since nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases like coal-fired power plants do. While it is true that countries like Germany have decided to phase out nuclear power and the US has not built a new one for over three decades, countries like France, Russia and China are continuing to embrace nuclear power aggressively. India cannot afford to abandon nuclear power as Germany has done even as it seeks to emulate the country’s giant strides in solar power.

The vast nuclear energy infrastructure created by Homi Bhabha with the full support of Jawaharlal Nehru has played a key role in strengthening India’s science and technology capabilities. However, its contribution to electricity generation is at no more than around 3.5%. Currently, the installed nuclear capacity is around 4,780 MW and another 4,800 MW (that includes two 1,000 MW Russian reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu) are in various stages of commissioning and completion. The expert group on low-carbon growth strategy set up by the UPA had suggested that by 2030 India’s nuclear power capacity should reach around 40,000 MW. This was assessed as being more realistic than the 63,000 MW being projected by the nuclear establishment. To meet India’s climate policy objectives, India’s solar and wind energy capacity should be around 100,000 MW each by 2030.

India has something like 25% of the world’s thorium reserves (excluding the thorium that could be extracted from coal ash). The use of thorium for nuclear power generation is at the core of the Bhabha plan. But thorium is not what is called a fissile material — it is, instead a fertile material that can be converted into a fissile material like Uranium-233. Fundamental in the Bhabha plan is the fast-breeder reactor that will burn plutonium extracted from the spent fuel rods in uranium reactors. A thorium-fuelled reactor comes in the third stage after the second stage of a fast breeder. It is here that India is on the verge of a tremendous achievement. India’s 500 MW prototype fast-breeder reactor started 11 years ago at Kalpakkam near Chennai is 97% complete and is likely to become operational by this time next year. Current plans are to install another two 500 MW fast-breeder reactors at Kalpakkam itself that will come on stream sometime towards the later part of the next decade and two more elsewhere. India clearly is a world leader in this area. Russia is the only other country that operates fast-breeder reactors. The other benefit of a fast-breeder reactor relevant to India is that by recycling the spent fuel, much of the radioactive waste is eliminated.

India stands at the nuclear crossroads. Even as it redoubles its research and development and engineering efforts in thorium technology, it needs to ask tough questions. Should we have a multiplicity of technologies from France, the US and Russia or should we standardise the technology we have mastered? The import route is expensive. The four 700 MW heavy water reactors coming up at Kakrapar in Gujarat and Rawatbhata in Rajasthan have been developed indigenously and their capacity can be upgraded. After all the 700 MW reactor is based on two 540 MW reactors developed and commissioned at Tarapur and on older 220 MW reactors developed and running at Kaiga, Kakrapar, Kalpakkam, Narora and Rawatbhata. Even it comes to light-water technology, Indian scientists and engineers have designed and commissioned two 80 MW reactors, one of which is used to power INS Arihant.

The other crucial issue is of regulation. India also needs to quickly put in place an independent regulator along the lines proposed in the legislation introduced in Parliament three years ago. Such a regulator has to address public concerns on safety and other risks associated with this technology.

Earlier this year, India had agreed to have a peer review of its nuclear regulatory system under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and hopefully this review will commence in the next few months. This would be the first time such a formal review would be taking place and should help in generating greater public confidence in nuclear technology. It is wrong to paint all those opposing nuclear technology as anti-national. The concerns are genuine and have been heightened by what happened at Fukushima in Japan, one of the most methodical and meticulous of countries. Engagement with civil society is the hallmark of an open democracy. Alas, this is an anathema to Modi and his colleagues.

Jairam Ramesh is a former Union minister. The views expressed by the author are personal

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