Why nuclear power still makes sense for India

Why in news?

The Union government is giving a strong push to the indigenous nuclear industry. In a bid to improve the number of reactors, the Union cabinet, earlier this month, approved the construction of 10 nuclear reactors that are expected to add 7,000 MW to India’s nuclear capacity.

Importance of pushing Indigenous nuclear industry

* India may to go for a completely indigenous nuclear programme in future if its entry into the NSG is not secured in the next couple of years.

* It gives domestic suppliers sufficient scale to operate on, thus decreasing their costs. It will also, hopefully, serve to avoid the protracted delays that have been repeatedly countenanced in building reactors in India.

* The indigenous push will also eschew the problems related to nuclear liability law that the foreign reactor builders persistently complain about.

* While the partnership with Rosatom, the Russian nuclear corporation, has been relatively smooth, the Indian government had to put out a creative interpretation of its own nuclear liability law to convince General Electric Co. and Westinghouse Electric Co. The former remained unpersuaded and the latter has now filed for bankruptcy in the US. The deal with the French reactor supplier Areva SA is stuck at the stage of tariff negotiation.

* As a clean energy source, nuclear is best suited to gradually replace coal, especially at a time when the government is simultaneously trying to reduce peak demand—the monumental programme to replace wasteful old lamps by 770 million LED bulbs is a case in point.

Challenges:

* All the 10 reactors the cabinet has recently approved for construction are pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs). Even though the PHWRs are expensive, the department of atomic energy persists with them because it lacks the expertise required to build and operate cheaper light-water reactors (LWRs). The imported LWRs are more expensive than the domestically built PHWRs.

* The economics of the global nuclear energy industry has gone a little awry after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.

* India’s nuclear liability law, which is out of line with the international standards, doesn’t help either. Heavy insurance premiums have to be paid up first, inevitably resulting in higher tariffs. It should be mentioned at this point that the safety concerns around nuclear reactors are grossly exaggerated and not supported by scientific evidence.

* Indigenization does indeed make sense but some people—in light of Germany and France deciding to phase out nuclear power plants—question the wisdom of embracing nuclear energy in India.

* They cite falling costs and increasing capacities of solar and wind power as against the rising costs and safety concerns of nuclear power. This, however, is a false comparison. Unless cheaper storage options are discovered, neither solar nor wind energy can meet India’s base load demand.

Way forward:

If India is able to build these 10 PHWRs quickly enough, it would have proved its mettle in reactor building and should then also consider exporting the technology to other developing countries. To meet domestic and foreign power requirements, India should infuse more energy into the sector by divesting NPCIL.

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