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10 May 2011, Gateway House

In praise of nuclear power

In the global hunt for energy security, nuclear energy has grown increasingly relevant as countries struggle to find sustainable sources of energy. The ambitious plans to build the world’s biggest nuclear plant in Jaitapur may prove to be the litmus test that defines the role of nuclear energy in India's future.


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Before we start debating the pros and cons of nuclear power in India, let’s just lay the numbers on the table.  The nuclear power plant being built at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, once ready will be the biggest in the world, not in the region, not in Asia, but the biggest in the world. It will have an annual capacity of 9,900 MW which is three times more than the annual energy being consumed by our commercial capital, Mumbai in a whole year (and yes, that includes the electricity bill of Antila, the new mega residence of business tycoon Mukesh Ambani).

Currently, only 3 % of India’s energy demands are met with nuclear power. The government plan is to raise this number to 25 % by 2042.

The best-laid plans, however, go awry. The government had planned to set up 44 new nuclear plants to augment the 20 existing ones. Minimal resistance was expected, heralding a new era for the Indian energy sector. But the mere shifting of tectonic plates in Japan, which ultimately reverberated even through the jungles and cliffs of Jaitapur, has led to “Areva (French nuclear company) go back” marches. The government has been forced back to the drawing board.

What had started off as a “not in my backyard” protest against the planned nuclear power plants, has become cause d’etre for a lot of activists. Horrid images predicting a repeat of Bhopal, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island have been circulated among the villagers propounding their fears manifold. Fear mongers are running amok and even in this age of information, selective display of facts has created confusion in the masses.

Here is the naked, uncomfortable truth – India can’t do without nuclear power. The earlier we accept this, the earlier we will be able to concentrate on the real issues. India currently imports 70 % of its oil and around half of its coal reserves for energy production. With volatile prices and currency fluctuations, this is clearly an unsustainable arrangement. A growing economic behemoth like India requires quality, uninterrupted and reliable power to sustain its growth. Coal and oil will soon need to be completely phased out.

The government has had the foresight to invest in alternate sources of energy with a well laid out road map. Nuclear power remains one of the few sources of emission-less clean energy. The safety issues might have been highlighted recently after the Japanese earthquake but with advances in scientific technology, the safety features of a nuclear plant have come a long way since Chernobyl. Despite the close proximity to the epicenter of the earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear plant has not seen a complete meltdown. Jaitapur’s location on top of a cliff and in a relatively seismic-free zone ensures relative safety against vagaries of nature.

Instead of protesting against the use of nuclear power, we need to encourage the government to focus on the safety aspects of a nuclear plant. We need to ensure that a security design flaw does not exacerbate any natural disaster. The government has already taken a step in the right direction by making the suppliers of the fuel and equipment liable in case of any disaster. This is different from most other countries where the operators are the sole responsibility and this clause has actually led to a lot of friction between supplier countries like US, but is the right step for our country. The government can also bank on the fact that all the existing 20 nuclear plants shut down safely after the earthquake and tsunami in 2004.

All is not gung-ho with the current establishment though. Both the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (safety wing) and Nuclear Power Corporation of India (operational wing) are under direct control of Department of Atomic Energy. Safety and operation under one roof – do you know another place where such a system existed? Off-shore drilling in Gulf of Mexico (oil spill circa 2010). We must have an independent safety body, in charge of inspections of all nuclear plants. We must also develop a proper plan for disposal of nuclear waste in the long run.

Nuclear power might not be the cure for our import problems either. High-grade uranium required to run these plants will need to be imported. We need to develop the capability to produce energy from Thorium, of which we have the biggest reserves in the whole world.

While not taking its eyes off the push for nuclear power, India can improve in a few other areas too. Currently 30 % of our power is lost in transmission or is stolen. This is against global norms of 3-5 %. If we were to invest our energy (no pun intended) in this endeavor, it can go a long way in solving our energy cures. The government is also not putting all its eggs into one basket and has a comprehensive alternate source of energy policy including solar energy. Entrepreneurial sops have ensured setting up of companies like Husk Power Systems which supplies energy to 25000 homes using rice husks.

Nuclear energy is in big demand not just in India, but throughout the world. Having maintained an impeccable safety and operational record for its indigenously developed nuclear program for over 35 years, India surely has lessons for the world to learn. India should grasp this opportunity with both hands and assume the role of leadership in this field. Energy hungry countries are likely to barter economic and political sops in exchange for energy security and when the time arises, India should be on the right side of the table.

According to unofficial estimates, India needs to double its current energy capacity just to fulfill the current demand. Renewable sources of energy are unlikely to be able to fill this gap and conventional sources of energy like coal and oil are fast vanishing. Nuclear energy might be our only answer.

On a recent business trip to Mexico, I realized that nuclear energy know-how can be used as a lever in the diplomatic world. It was interesting to note that the locals have immense knowledge (and interest) about India’s nuclear prowess. As Juan Sanchez, a political analyst who visited India in 2004, says, “India has long been declaring on the world stage that its nuclear program is aimed at peaceful purposes. Showcasing a breakthrough in technology for nuclear power is the easiest way to answer the critics and position itself as the pioneer in nuclear energy. This will eventually be bigger than having barrels of oil or the latest weaponry in 21st century.”

Simran Singh is an associate with The Parthenon Group, a global management consulting firm

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