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Despite concerns we need to pursue power generation through nuclear route, Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry Of Power

Despite concerns we need to pursue power generation through nuclear route
[R V Shahi's Weekly Column for Infraline, November 26, 2007]

In the last few weeks several write-ups have appeared in various magazines and also in some of the important national dailies, those supporting the nuclear route for substantially enhancing power generation profile as also those raising concerns about too much of dependence on nuclear power. Those holding the latter point of view have articulated that even in the best possible scenario, over a period of next 25 years, nuclear capacity proportion of the total power generation capacity may not be more than 6 to 7% and therefore this route cannot be described as a panacea for power problems. There have been other sets of views raising several concerns from the point of view of safety and environment. Briefly the view points of both the schools of thought could be summarized as below:

  1. The Integrated Energy Policy (August 2006), which has projected comprehensively India's approach and strategy (as proposed by the Expert Committee) toward various energy issues and interrelated aspects, has suggested that in the best case scenario, by 2032, India should have a nuclear capacity of the order of 63000 MW (as against the capacity of 3,100 MW as in 2006). As compared to this optimistic projection the Integrated Energy Policy document has also suggested that during the same time frame a capacity addition of about 48,000 MW could be a realistic and achievable target. A few important extracts from the IEP are given below :

"Para 34 (f)

Though nuclear energy can make only a modest contribution over the next 25 years, longer term consideration of even a modest degree of energy self-sufficiency suggests the need to pursue the development of nuclear power using Thorium. Despite the many delays and disappointments in achieving set targets of nuclear energy development in the past, this is an option we cannot afford not to pursue. Today the PHWR is economically competitive with coal based plants at certain locations."

"Para 34 (g)

If the import of 6,000 MWe of LWR reactors does not materialise, the installed nuclear capacity by 2031-32 will be 48,000 MW instead of 63,000 MW. The impact on the various scenarios will, however, be marginal and none of the policy conclusion would be affected. We have not depended on large scale import of LWRs due to the uncertainties involved. Imported LWRs could be an important option if the FBR and Thorium reactor routes not materialise or are found to be uneconomical. Energy security concerns may leave us no option other than full pursuit of the FBR and Thorium routes."

"Para 34(h)

The optimistic nuclear development scenario as envisaged is contingent on 6,000 MW of additional import of LWRs whose plutonium could be used in FBRs along with the plutonium from the 10,000 MWe reactors using our own Uranium. Import of the additional 6,000 MW of LWRs (and associated fuel) depends upon the handful of countries constituting the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG). If the sanctions by the NSG are removed and India is able to import Uranium and nuclear power plants, nuclear power can play a much bigger role in the power sector. The capacity growth then would not be constrained by Table. However, if energy security concerns are our primary driver towards nuclear, then import of LWRs, even though more economical, may have to be limited to restrict our dependence on energy imports."

  1. Even if we consider the contrarian view that at the most 6 to 7% of the total capacity only could be expected from the nuclear and therefore this may not be taken as a solution toward power for all, it needs to be emphasized that by 2032 when India expects to have an installed capacity of the order of 800,000 MW, a nuclear capacity of the order of 50,000 to 55,000 MW is not a small contribution to be brushed aside. The country will need to do a lot of preparation for this meaningful contribution of adding over 50,000 MW through nuclear route.

  2. In one of the recent articles in the Economic and Political Weekly (August 25, 2007), a well researched paper highlights the heavy subsidies in heavy water and therefore questions the economics of nuclear power generation. It says that it has been conjectured that Department of Atomic Energy subsidises the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) through providing cheap heavy water and has argued that in addition to cheap finance the Nuclear Power Programme enjoys, in all probability, another implicit subsidy is in the form of the cost and lease rate for its heavy water supplies. The cost of initial loading of heavy water, which is subsidized both through a low price and by leasing heavy water at a low rate, constitutes over 15% of the initial capital cost of the reactor, which in turn is the dominant contribution to the cost of producing electricity. Studies of the relative economics of nuclear power would therefore depend strongly on what is assumed for heavy water cost. According to this paper, Atomic Energy is unlikely to be economically competitive if the true cost of producing heavy water is taken into account. Obviously this analysis needs to be carefully considered. If N.P.C. has a different perspective, it should articulate and bring it out.

  3. The proponents of nuclear power argue that while in respect of capital cost the nuclear power plant is somewhat costlier, taking into account the variable cost of generating power and also keeping in view a much longer life for these plants, despite the point of heavy water cost, the power generated through nuclear route, considering about 45 years of life span, would emerge not only competitive but it would work out to be cheaper. If we combine with this argument the fact about substitution of Fossil Fuel based capacity and therefore the potential of addressing carbondioxide emission problems and give a value to the carbondioxide emission reduction the case would be more than made and would be heavily weighted in favour of nuclear power generation.

  4. While the proponents argue in favour of nuclear power from the point of view of environmental consideration, exactly opposite are the views of those who oppose. In the recent months, no doubt there have been some disturbing reports on this front. In July 2008, following an earthquake in Japan, management of nuclear waste posed a major problem. Times of India (July 18, 2007) presented a long report about the leak of nuclear waste at a power plant in Kashiwazaki. Though the report was longer a brief extract is worth mentioning.

"A powerful earthquake tipped over barrels of nuclear waste at a power plant in northern Japan, and officials on Tuesday were investigating whether there were any radioactive leaks as thousands of quake survivors crowded shelters.

The death toll stood at nine a day after the 6.8-magnitude quake. One person was missing and another 13,000 rendered homeless, as rescue workers rushed to locate any survivors in the rubble-amid fears of landslides-and to restore severed utilities. The quake caused a leak of water with radioactive material Monday at world's largest nuclear power plant at Kashiwazaki city, near the epicenter, although officials said that leak caused no harm to the environment.

On Tuesday, officials were investigating a possible second leak, saying stacked drums containing low level nuclear waste fell at the plant during the quake and were found a day later with some of the lids open, Kyodo News agency said, citing officials in Kashiwazaki.

Kensuke Takeuchi, a spokesman at the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant, confirmed that barrels of low-level nuclear waste had tipped over. But he could not give further details, such as whether there had been a leak. "We're currently investigating the situation and plan to deal with it as smoothly as possible," Takeuchi said, while refusing to offer further comment. Kyodo reported that about 100 drums had fallen over.

Another leak at the power plant would sow further doubts about the safety of Japan's nuclear power plants, which have suffered accidents and cover-ups amid concerns they are vulnerable in earthquakes".

  1. The issue of safety in nuclear power plant has always been receiving due attention globally but in addition to the incident in Japan another accident in Germany led to widespread attention and reporting. The Economist (August 04, 2007) reported about these incidence and raised concern that two accidents heat-up the debate whether nuclear power as an answer to climate change could be revived. An extract from a long report is reproduced here.

"Until recently, nuclear power seemed to be making its way back into public favour in Germany. A warm winter, and dire warnings by scientists about climate change, convinced many that carbon emissions might be a bigger danger than nuclear accidents or radioactive waste. Opinion polls this spring showed that fewer than half of Germans favoured continuing the policy, adopted in 2000, of phasing out all nuclear plants by 2021.

About a quarter of Germany's electricity still comes from nuclear reactors, and country's four big power companies had dared to hope for a reprieve for nuclear power-at least to extend the life of existing reactors, if not permission to build new ones. But that changed at the end of June, when two separate accidents at nuclear plants operated by Vattenfall, a Swedish company, in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, set back the pro-nuclear lobby once again.

The mishaps-a short-circuit at the Brunsbuttel plant and a transformer fire at the Krummel station-posed little threat. But Vattenfall botched its public relations (and later sacked its German boss), while environmentalists gave warning that the accidents could have been much worse. Public support for the nuclear phase-out climbed back over 50%".

  1. In a lead article "Nuclear Energy is toxic" on the edit page of the premier national daily the Times of India of November 21,2007, the author says "One of the most dangerous consequences of running a nuclear reactor is that it can release radioactive material into the environment. A lethal radioactive by product is plutonium produced in large quantities. Less than one millionth of plutonium is carcinogenic. One pound of plutonium distributed through the earth will cause lung cancer to every inhabitant of this planet." This is rather a very dismal picture presented about the nuclear power generation technology and process. While the apprehensions and concerns may be genuine, the process of safeguards being adopted also needs to be properly understood and reflected.

  2. Shortage of fuel for the Indian nuclear power plants has also been often quoted as a matter of serious concern for the future programmes. I recall that in the first two years of the Tenth Five Year Plan the nuclear plants in India achieved an availability factor of over 85 to 90% and plant load factor (capacity utilization) of the order of over 80%. All the plants which suffered initial teething problems of getting stabilized, thanks to our Scientist and Engineers, achieved excellence in operation within a period of eight to ten years. However, in the last three years as the capacities have increased, supply of adequate fuel has posed a problem leading to continuous decline in utilization of capacity. Plant load factor in these plants has reduced significantly. In a way, the country has not fully benefitted by increased capacity achieved during last few years. During the years 2001-02 and 2002-03 the generation achieved in the nuclear power plants was almost 19,200 million units but subsequently in 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06 there has been reduction inspite of capacity addition. The generation in 2005-06 was only 17,300 million units. The following Table gives the plant load factor (capacity utilization) in last few years.

Year

Plant Load Factor

1997-1998

70%

1999-2000

75%

2001-2002

80%

2002-2003

85%

2003-2004

75%

2004-2005

71%

2005-2006

70%

Declining production of Uranium has been mentioned as the reason for this. However the fact remains that highly capital intensive nuclear power plants, if not fully utilized, lead to the economics of generation getting upside down.

  1. The position of the Nuclear Power Corporation has been that there was a growing mismatch between demand and supply of Uranium primarily due to the shut down of Uranium processing plant at Jadugudah in Jharkhand. Unless we could explore new reserves, shortage of fuel may continue to jeopardize our nuclear energy growth programmes. The other option is to resort to Fast Breeder Reactors which use Thorium as fuel. It is the second phase of India's nuclear generation strategy. At present, Nuclear Power Corporation is developing a 500 MW indigenously developed Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam (Tamil Nadu). This plant is likely to be commissioned by the end of 2010.

  2. Inspite of several serious concerns regarding the safety arising out of radio active radiations we need to recognize that there are a number of countries where nuclear power generation is substantial. Except for a few incidences here and there, they have been successfully operating these plants. Infact, France which has the largest dependence on nuclear capacity, to the extent of almost 80%, has as many as 59 nuclear reactors in operation. Even the USA with a large installed capacity base of almost 700,000 MW (total) has almost 19% of its capacity based on nuclear and has as many as 103 reactors in operation. The following Table gives the proportion of capacities linked to nuclear route in some of the select countries.

Country

Percentage of Total Capacity Based on Nuclear

No. of Reactors

France

78%

59

S. Korea

39%

20

Hungry

38%

4

Germany

32%

17

Japan

30%

55

USA

19%

103

UK

18%

19

Russia

16%

31

Canada

16%

18

Argentina

7%

2

Brazil

3%

2

Pakistan

2.7%

2

India

2.6%

17

China

1.9%

10

  1. At present the total installed capacity in India is 4,100 MW with 17 nuclear power reactors. The Nuclear Power Corporation was set-up in 1987. This succeeded the Nuclear Power Board which had been created in 1984 out of the Power Project Engineering Division (PPED) of the Department of Atomic Energy. The nuclear generation history in India started with the commissioning of the 160 MW Tarapur Unit in Maharashtra in October, 1969. Until 1999 the total capacity had reached about 1,900 MW and subsequently as in August 2006 with the commissioning of the second 540 MW pressurized heavy water reactor at Tarapur the total capacity has reached the figure of 4,120 MW.

  2. On November 07, 2007, a Round Table was organized by Infraline Energy and IDFC in which we had two detailed presentations one by the CMD of Nuclear Power Corporation, Dr. S.K. Jain, and another by the Principal Advisor (Energy) of the Planning Commission, Dr. Surya Sethi. Some of the salient points of the presentation made by the CMD, NPC, are outlined below:

  • A 500 MW coal based power plant requires annually 2.5 million tonnes of steam grade coal. But, a 500 MW nuclear plant would require only 80 tonnes of fuel per year.

  • In the last few years we have succeeded in establishing our capability and credential to design, construct and operate nuclear plant successfully. Rajasthan Kakrapur Unit 4 has run for 373 days without outage; Kalpakam Unit 1 did 373 days of non-stop run.

  • There used to be a time when nuclear project would take eight to ten years before they were able to get commissioned from first pour of concrete to commercial operation. We are now able to do it in a period of about five years.

  • But for the availability of fuel we have been able to achieve almost 90% of the capacity utilization factor during the year 2002-03 and 2003-04, as against the average capacity utilization factor of about 87% world over.

  • Several concerns are often raised about safety and environment. Track record of our plants on this score has been excellent. Also, the Regulatory framework for safety is very strong.

  • As per Vision-2020 we have projected a total capacity of about 21,000 MW which includes 6,000 MW of imported plant.

VISION 2020

S.No.

Capacity (MW)

Cumulative Capacity (MW)

i)

17 reactors at 6 sites

4,120

4,120

ii)

3 PHWR under construction

660

4,780

iii)

2 LWR under construction at Kundankulam (Expected in 2008-09 and 2009-10)

2x1000

6,780

iv)

PFBR under construction at Kalpakam (Expected in 2010)

500

7,280

v)

Projects planned till 2020:

  • PHWR 8 x 700 MW

  • FBR 4 x 500 MW

  • LWR 6 x 100 MW*

  • AHWR 1 x 300 MW

13,900

21,180

vi)

Total by 2020

21,180

*Imported

The presentation made by the Principal Advisor (Energy) Planning Commission was on a different line and it came out as a highly researched exercise on global perspectives as well as Indian context. Some of the salient points are outlined below:

  1. Nuclear power may account for about 19-22% of world electricity in 2050 compared to 16% today and will remain at about 6% of the world's primary energy mix.

  2. Nuclear energy accounts for about 1% of primary energy mix in India today. Therefore contrary to what is being projected or expected nuclear power is unlikely to be the answer to electricity for all in India atleast till 2050.

  3. The major challenges that face nuclear option are :

  1. Uncertainties about world Uranium reserves and their extraction.

  2. Thorium cycle could literally open the flood gates for nuclear energy, as it is a resource which is far more abundantly available worldwide.

  3. Risk of weapon proliferation and terrorism is a matter of serious concern. The nexus between climate, poverty and security environment is increasingly becoming clear.

  4. Nuclear is not green house gas free as is commonly projected and perceived. Though to a lower degree, a detailed analysis would indicate that there are significant green house gas emissions considering the lifecycle of a nuclear plant.

  1. Public perception of safety environment and health impacts would definitely be important factors to recon with.

  2. Though civil nuclear expansion faces formidable challenge, we should not give up. We must work on these challenges and concerns which have been highlighted.

This paper has presented different perspectives on nuclear option for power generation. India's energy needs are so enormous that we can ill-afford making preferences, choosing one and rejecting another. Even all options put together do not add up to what we need. We need to pursue all fuel options and all technologies. On April 25, 2006, I had the privilege of addressing an international gathering of eminent experts in the Global Energy Dialogue held at Hannover in Germany. The subject was to talk on total energy issues. It may be important to mention the point that was made in this address on nuclear option. An extract is given below:

"India has established its capability in designing, engineering, construction and operation of nuclear power plants. The installed capacity is 3310 MW, less than 3% of total installed capacity of power, consisting of two Boiling Water Reactors and twelve Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors, eight more reactors (total capacity 3420 MW) are under construction.

India believes that nuclear power could be a good source of its power profile and therefore its proportion should increase from 2.6% to say 7 to 8% by 2030 which will mean a capacity of over 55,000 MW. Department of Atomic Energy, therefore, has evolved an approach and perspective which includes setting up of Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors in the first stage, Fast Breeder Reactors in the second stage and Reactors based on Uranium 233 - Thorium 232 cycle in the third stage. Construction on two units of 1000 MW at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, as per the agreement between India and Russian Federation marks the beginning of introduction of Light Water Reactors (LWR).

At present, the entire development of nuclear power plants is through Nuclear Power Corporation of India, a company under the control of Government of India. As per the Atomic Energy Act, private sector is not permitted to develop these plants. Tariff determination for power generated in these plants is also not under the jurisdiction of the Regulatory Commission; it is decided by the Government of India.

Management and disposal of waste has been carried out fairly satisfactorily. These plants have demonstrated good track record of safety and waste management. To deal with the issue of safety and related matters, there is an independent regulatory institution."

In conclusion, inspite of several concerns relating to safety, environment, health, terrorism, green house gas emission, economics of generation and constraint of fuel supply, I am of the considered opinion that nuclear energy is a desirable route for electricity generation. While doing so, however, we should continue to be cognizant of various concerns which have been highlighted and address them appropriately. Project engineering and management has to further improve so that capital cost is further reduced. We must find solution to the problem of fuel availability. Our regulatory framework on safety and health is well equipped, but its structure, systems, procedures and above all placements of experts in the Regulatory institution should undergo regular review so as to inspire even higher level of confidence among people.

Copy Right : R.V. SHAHI

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