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HypE=mc2

Nuclear power is unlikely to reduce global CO² emissions or be a cost-effective answer to the growing electricity demands, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2007 17:25 IST

The line between fact and fiction has become blurred in the shrill debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Sadly, no one has contributed more to obscuring that line than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Blending missionary zeal with undaunted resolve to push through an increasingly divisive deal, Singh has been contradicting himself with startling regularity. A classic instance relates to the US’s enabling legislation, the Hyde Act, a 41-page anthology of India-specific conditions.

After the full US House and a Senate committee had approved separate versions of the bill, Singh declared in August 2006: “I had taken up with President Bush our concerns regarding provisions in the two bills. It is clear if the final product is in its current form, India will have grave difficulties in accepting the bills. The US has been left in no doubt as to our position.” When the US Congress disregarded Singh’s red lines and passed the Hyde Act by amalgamating the toughest elements from the Senate and House bills, the PM admitted in the Lok Sabha on December 18, 2006, that “there are areas which continue to be a cause for concern”. Today, Singh’s government has a convenient new position — “Whatever is stated in the Hyde Act is not our concern.”

Ten days ago, Singh articulated a new raison d’être for pushing the deal: “There is today talk the world over of a nuclear renaissance, and we cannot afford to miss the bus or lag behind these global developments.” The reasoning behind the ‘don’t-miss-the-bus’ invocation is markedly specious.

First, there is no evidence of a ‘nuclear renaissance’. The share of nuclear power in global electricity has been stagnant at 16 per cent since the mid-1990s, with 429 reactors worldwide currently generating 370 gW. Another 24 reactors today are under construction, but only four in the West. Even if all current reactor proposals turn into reality, the number of nations operating nuclear plants would merely rise from 31 to 38, indicating modest growth but no global dash to the ‘bus’.

Second, India can hardly miss any bus, given its own capacity to build state-of-the-art power reactors of the type the PM just dedicated to the nation. With enough uranium reserves to support a 10 gW programme, India today has an installed generating capacity of only 4.1 gW, thanks partly to the way Singh starved the programme of necessary funds for expansion when he was finance minister. Singh’s new-found enthusiasm for nuclear power actually centres on imports.

In any event, how can India miss any bus when Singh refers merely to the “talk the world over of a nuclear renaissance”? Should India be chasing the talk?

While nuclear power certainly has a place in a diverse energy portfolio, India can hardly meet its burgeoning energy needs by importing high-priced reactors. Such imports, besides making little economic or strategic sense, will be a path to energy insecurity and exorbitant costs. No country has tried to build energy security by importing reactors of a type it has no intent to manufacture nationally and whose fuel requirements will keep it perpetually dependent on foreign suppliers. But that is the path on which Singh wishes to take India.

Owing to the global climate crisis, nuclear power is no longer a hobgoblin to some environmentalists. With the power sector responsible for 24 per cent of all CO2 emissions, cleaner means to produce power are necessary. Yet, for multiple reasons, nuclear power is unlikely to make any real dent in global CO² emissions or be a cost-effective answer to the growing electricity demands.

First, after declining for a quarter-century, the world nuclear power industry lacks the capacity to undertake a massive construction programme that could make a noticeable difference to global warming. While nuclear power generation itself is ‘clean’, the nuclear-fuel cycle is carbon-intensive, with greenhouse gases emitted in mining and enriching uranium with fossil fuels. Reactor construction also carries large carbon footprints. In addition, radioactive wastes from reactor operation pose technological challenges and inestimable environmental costs.

Second, independent studies worldwide show that electricity generated through currently available nuclear technologies is not cost-competitive with other conventional sources. Also, nuclear power is highly capital-intensive. The reason why not a single new power reactor in the US has been built after the last one ordered in 1970 is largely economics. Two separate studies by the University of Chicago (2004) and MIT (2003), for example, computed the baseline cost of new nuclear power at 6.2 to 6.7 cents per kWh, as compared to 3.3 to 4.2 cents for pulverised ‘clean’ coal and 3.5 to 5.6 cents for natural gas. The PM, tellingly, has shied away from disclosing any estimate of the cost of electricity from new imported reactors.

Third, the world’s uranium stocks are limited and unless breeder-technology is embraced in a big way or the higher-grade ores reserved for military programmes are freed, the known uranium reserves will last barely 85 years, according to the joint OECD-IAEA ‘Red Book’ that uses 2004 generation levels. Fourth, nuclear fuel costs are escalating sharply because the international price of uranium has been rising faster than any other commodity. While the price of coal, measured in a two-decade timeframe, has dropped, the spot price of uranium more than quadrupled just during 2004-07.

Fifth, the lead time for construction of a power plant from any energy source other than large-scale hydro-power is the highest for nuclear power. While a power reactor takes five to six years from start to finish, a gas-fired plant takes two years and a windmill even less. Sixth, because of its potentially serious hazards, nuclear power faces a uniquely stringent regulatory regime, which adds to the time and liability, along with associated costs on operational safety and spent-fuel management.

Seventh, a tiny nuclear cartel made up of a few State-guided firms controls the global reactor and fuel supplies. This constitutes the most politically regulated commerce in the world, with little sanctity of contract, as the cases of Tarapur, Brushehr and others epitomise. That is why many countries today view the idea of an international nuclear fuel bank as institutionalising discrimination because it would allow a handful of advanced countries to preserve their supply monopoly.

And eighth, nuclear power involves significant external costs that industry does not bear on its own, including on accident-liability cover, anti-terrorist safeguards, radioactive-waste storage, decommissioning of old reactors, and international monitoring. State subsidies are not factored into the generating costs and remain hidden.

In sum, without a breakthrough in fusion energy or greater commercial advances in breeder (and thorium) reactors, nuclear power is in no position to lead the world out of the fossil-fuel age. The path to energy and climate security lies through carbon-free renewable energy, which by harnessing nature frees a nation from reliance on external sources of fuel supply. Yet, such is the nuclear-power hype that few Indians know that their country today generates much more wind power than nuclear energy.