Nuclear Energy in India

Did you know that 54% of the power generated in India is coal-based? You must be well aware of the adverse effects that use of fossil fuels has on the environment, the most significant being global warming. As the effects of global warming become more and more palpable, the search for a clean source of energy is now more important than ever.

And that’s where nuclear energy seems to come in. Nuclear energy comes from splitting atoms in a reactor to heat water into steam which then rotates a turbine to generate electricity. Nuclear power plants run on Uranium instead of fossil fuels, so they don’t emit harmful gases and do not contribute to global warming. On the face of it, it seems like the silver bullet that we need to prevent an impending climate disaster. But why does nuclear power still only account for only 2% of India’s power generation?

Although nuclear energy seems promising, the truth is it just isn’t the solution India needs (despite what the government seems to believe and push). There are a  variety of reasons for this, and some of them are examined below.

One of the major impediments to adopting nuclear power in India is the fact that it is simply not economical. Although the DAE (Department of Atomic Energy), the government body responsible for all things ‘nuclear’ in India, likes to assert that nuclear power is economical in India (to persuade policymakers to invest in nuclear), the truth is actually far off. Nuclear power, in fact, costs more than other conventional sources of power, such as thermal energy, and many detailed analyses have been conducted and have come to the same conclusion.

In fact, the whole idea that nuclear power is economical dates back to the post-war era, when Lewis L. Strauss, the chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC), made a claim   under direction from the then President of America Dwight Eisenhower that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter”. This, however, was just a move by the US to ease worldwide tensions caused by the nuclear arms race of the time and divert attention away from nuclear weapons to peaceful nuclear energy.

It has been well known ever since the early post-war era that nuclear energy wasn’t economical at all, even in India. For example, the 1965 ‘Report of the Energy Survey of India Committee’ stated: “In areas where coal must bear a high transport cost, and hydel is not available, there is likely to be scope at even present costs of nuclear energy . . . The longer- term place of nuclear energy in the Indian energy economy must wait for the development of economic methods for using Thorium. We may hope that these methods may be available by the 1970s”. The prediction about thorium turned about to be too optimistic, and there are still no cost-effective methods for using Thorium, and there might never be. Strangely enough, the Government of India seems to have turned a deaf ear towards such critical assessments, and has recommended the large scale expansion of nuclear power without considering its unfavourable economics, such as in the 1974 ‘Report of the Fuel Policy Committee’ and the 1979 ‘Report of the Working Group on Energy Policy’.

Another problem with the use of nuclear energy in India is the lack of safety features in the power plants. On examining the historical records of the DAE’s nuclear facilities, it can be noted that nearly all of them have had some sorts of accidents of varying severity which have been euphemistically termed as ‘incidents’. Between 1998 and 2010 there were between twenty-one and fifty-four incidents every year according to the reports of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The low priority allotted to safety in nuclear facilities is visible in the design choices made for the reactors, which are primarily motivated by cost-cutting rather than security. Also, it should be noted that nuclear reactors are prone to catastrophic accidents like earthquakes and tsunamis, which is not a drawback of other sources of energy.

Nuclear power, in general, also has something of a stigma associated with it. The meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986, the partial meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in the US and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 have made a majority of the people view nuclear power negatively and fearfully. If you found out that a nuclear reactor was to be built 10 kilometres from where you lived, wouldn’t you feel anxious and nervous as well? I mean, it is “nuclear” after all, and the word itself connotes negative reactions amongst most people.

When the Government of India commissioned a nuclear power plant along with USSR in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, in 1988, they were met with opposition from the villagers who resided near the plant. The anti-nuclear movement in Kudankulam continued for 25 years, which included violent conflicts between the people and the government. The villagers also feared that their fishing areas would be polluted, so the livelihoods of fishermen would be threatened. Furthermore, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the villagers grew more agitated and pressed more vigorously against the nuclear power plant being built near their village. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was even sent to the nuclear power plant to quell the villagers and pacify them.

In conclusion, while nuclear energy might seem attractive because of the marketing effects of various governmental institutions, the bottom line is that it is simply not a feasible solution to climate change. Nuclear energy is not economical and poses as many disadvantages as advantages. The search for effective alternative sources of power must continue and not stop here, and efforts must be intensified in this direction before climate change worsens.

By: Chathur Gudesa

References

  1. The Power Of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India, M.V. Ramana
  2. Documentary on the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92QXWdUKMU0&feature=youtu.be
  3. https://www.nei.org/fundamentals/what-is-nuclear-energy
  4. https://powermin.nic.in/en/content/power-sector-glance-all-india

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