Nuclear Power a viable option
India can exploit Nuclear Power
Over 30 countries in the world today rely upon nuclear energy as a commercial source of power generation. Some of them include Lithuania and France with over 78% generation coming from nuclear power. Belgium, Sweden, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Armenia receiving over 35% share from nuclear electricity and USA, UK, Germany with about 20% etc. Worldwide 436 nuclear power plants are in operation with 370221 Mwe installed capacity. New plants are added in China, India, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea and Russia last year and over three dozen are under construction. Notwithstanding this evolution and sustained development, capacity addition from nuclear power as commercially viable source of electricity supply has been projected as a contentious issue by a section of society.
In India there is no competition between various sources of energy as there is endemic power shortage here. Current installed capacity is about 140,000 Mwe and new capacities are added @ 4000 Mwe each year. This is totally inadequate when the target is to add 10000 Mwe each year. Given the acute shortages in peak supply ( >12%) and energy demand (>10%), Nuclear power does not have to compete with coal and hydro in India. They are the main sources for power generation and will remain so. There is a question mark on gas fired power plants as having a long-term role. They have short gestation but the gas has been mostly imported. Recently KG Basin gas has started to flow but mostly to Fertilizer plants in India. The prices of the crude oil are linked to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) or imported gas through pipelines. The fears are that crude would remain a volatile commodity and price predictability challenge makes Gas fired plants very vulnerable to investors. Renewable energy will have growing but for decades only marginal role in India.
Nuclear Power in India today has installed capacity of 4120 Mwe and new construction of 2660 MWe is underway. New builds include 2×1000 MW VVER type Russian supplied power plants located at Kudamkulam in Tamil Nadu state. A 500 Mwe capacity Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam town is also under construction since 2004. One 220 Mwe capacity PHWR type unit is also under construction at Kaiga near Goa.
Global warming due to Carbon emissions from gas & coal fired plants is emerging as the biggest threat to environment. In comparison nuclear power seems benign. It does not emit any green house gases at all. Nuclear power is beginning to be recognized as part of the solution to meet ever-increasing demand for electricity by growing economies and without aggravating the problems caused by notorious green house gases in environment. In fact Patrick Moore, one of the recognised cofounders of Greenpeace now consdiers that Nuclear Power along with recognised sources of renewable energy basket is good answer to the green house gas reduction target faced by the global community and governments.
Very often specter of nuclear accident is raised to frighten public. There were two major accidents, one in 70’s at Three Mile Island in US and second in 1986 at Chernobyl in Soviet Union. Chernobyl killed 31 workers at the plant. Hard lessons are learnt and newer and safer variety of reactors such as European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPWR), pebble bed type inherently safe designs or Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR) and AP-1000 are developed. These would reduce possibilities of accidents to inconsequential levels. Compare this with coal-fired plants that continue to remorselessly kill over 20000 people each year due to coal mining , transport and soot from thermal power plant chimneys.
Main reasons why India should continue with nuclear power are access to proven technology and fast emerging favorable economics. The Indo- US Civilian Nuclear Cooperation signed in 2008 now allows import of power generation plants by India. It may take some years for this to deliver the first units from US or France. Imported reactors could add 6000 MWe within a decade from now. So far as the capital investments are concerned, Nuclear plants seem expensive in the beginning, as its capital cost is high like hydro plants. But its fuel cost is only about 15% to 20% of the total generation cost. This is because the Uranium prices are still low & stable compared to other fuel sources. In Europe the cheapest thermal power is produced form the nuclear power plants built in 70’s and 80’s. In India coal prices spiral @20% each year. Coal constitutes 40% of generation price, so it relentlessly produces expensive power for years.
Take for example the nuclear plant under construction at Kudamkulam (2×1000 Mwe, VVER by Russians) costing about 6.5 crores of Indian Rupees (INR) per Mwe ($1.3 billion per MWe). Generation cost will be under rupees 4 per kilowatt-hour in 2007. Cost of generation for 90’s nuclear power plant is less than 3 rupees per Kwhr (6 US Cents per Kwhr), 80’s are less than 2 rupees per Kwhr and Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) built in 1969 produces power at less than1 rupee per unit. Nuclear power plants have 40-50 years useful life. It would win hands down on price front after first 8 -10 years of operation compared to same vintage coal and gas stations.
It is the public perception promoted by a section of society opposed to nuclear power that is the main challenge and not the techno-commercial viability and its enhanced environmental relevance.