A report in The Statesman on 15 March this year stated that the US had agreed to build six atomic power plants in India to strengthen bilateral security and civil nuclear cooperation. It expressed its strong support to India’s early membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India and the US have concluded an agreement to cooperate in the civil nuclear energy sector. On 14 March, the US reaffirmed its position regarding the civil nuclear deal.

In January 2019, India and Uzbekistan entered into a long-term contract to supply uranium ore concentrates to fuel nuclear reactors. India has been trying to build up a stockpile of nuclear fuel for its strategic uranium reserve in order to sustain the country’s nuclear reactors efficiently and meaningfully for the next five years. India currently procures uranium from Canada and Uzbekistan. Other countries with uranium-rich minerals are Russia, France and Australia. India has so far imported 5550 metric tons of uranium fuel.

Three questions are relevant to the context. First, is it necessary to import nuclear fuel and put in place new nuclear reactors in India? Second, what would be the technology and how safe is it? Considering that India has the world’s largest thorium reserves, why shouldn’t we use thorium as a feasible source of clean energy instead of importing the fuel uranium?

The answer to the first question is obviously ‘yes’. The present demand of electricity is around 150,000 MW and is expected to increase about 450,000 MW by 2025. We need this energy for agriculture, industries, biotechnology and rural development. To that extent, nuclear energy, which at present is 3 per cent, needs to be increased by about 8 per cent. Nuclear power is the fourth- largest source of electricity in India after thermal, hydroelectric .and renewable sources of energy. The country’s 22 nuclear reactors have an installed capacity of 6780 MW and they produce a total of 30,292.91 G. Wh of electricity. Eleven more reactors are under construction to generate an additional 8100 MW of electricity. The popularity of nuclear power worldwide took a major hit after the massive disaster in Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Plant. It remains one of the cheapest, most efficient and carbon friendly forms of energy generation that we currently put in use, In addition, energy superpowers like the US, Russia are licensing and allowing transfer of technology to developing countries.

The energy derived from atomic power plants is, however, not a new phenomenon. We have reactors in Tarapur, Kalpakkam and Rajasthan. The fuel required for the reactor is uranium metal (atomic weight 235). The NSG countries like Australia and Canada will supply the uranium fuel. Inside the reactor, speedy neutron strikes the fuel uranium (235) and the fusion process starts. More neutrons generated due to fission of uranium are controlled by a special device or by the “boron dilution process”, if required. The heat produced in the reactor is transferred to water and the generating steam which turns turbine to produce electricity. At the end of the reaction, uranium metal is eventually converted to plutonium. During the entire course of the fission process, the reactor is covered with a wall of heavy concrete or steel in order to prevent the escape of radioactive rays into the atmosphere. Continuous monitoring of leakage emissions must be imperative so that radiation does not pose any danger to the environment.

A simplified version of the reactor’s technology is known as the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR). Besides, there are Heavy Water Reactors (HWR) Pressurised and Advanced Light Water Reactors (PWR and ALWR). Hopefully the new technology will eliminate the risk associated with disposal of nuclear wastes. Most countries store the waste either underground, deep in the bedrock in watertight and airtight containers. However, it would be prudent to review the radioactive waste management from time to time. Proper environmental impact assessment also needs to be done.

It is true that India has the world’s largest thorium reserves (25 per cent of global), 10.70 million tons of monazite which contains 963000 tons of thorium dioxide. But this fuel requires a three-stage process for it to be converted into uranium pellets in the nuclear fuel assembly. India is yet to develop a suitable mechanism and sophisticated technology to reap the benefits of a large reserve of thorium and made usable to be put into the reactor. But it is imperative to carry out research in this area in order to achieve tangible results. But the cooperation for harnessing nuclear energy with other countries should continue. The bilateral cooperation had paved the way during President Obama’s visit to India. The earlier 123 US agreement signed in 2008 will now be operational and US agencies will start building nuclear reactors in India.

The next generation of atomic power plants is likely to be very different from the present one. America’s GE and Westing House, AREVA of France have claimed that new design reactors would be simpler, safer and its maintenance would not pose any serious problem. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is contemplating to certify GE’s latest design of reactor ESWBR and AREVA soon. On the other hand, UNISTAR, a joint venture between America’s Constellation and Electricitie de France (EDF) has decided for installation of a plant in Maryland, USA. Although the first AREVA’s EPR (third generation pressurised water reactor) design under construction in Finland is yet to be completed, the industries are confident of building new reactors without much delay. At this juncture, India should renegotiate terms with French giant AREVA for its new nuclear reactors along with detail pros and cons of safety matters.

China concluded an agreement with the US in 1985, trying to increase their nuclear energy from 1 per cent to 4 per cent. The CPI-M leaders are tightlipped in this regard. If China could come forward, why should India, which needs a vast amount of clean energy for its industrialisation, rural development, and R & D, be whimsically debarred?

It bears recall that in 1986, nuclear power generation all over the world suffered a massive setback following an accident at a reactor in Chernobyl in Ukraine. The Chernobyl disaster (around 4,000 eventual deaths reported) had spread radioactive emission over Europe and the nuclear industry lost its momentum. An accident also occurred at Three Miles Island, in Pennsylvania in 1979. Leakage of radioactive material from the reactor was also reported from Japan because of an earthquake. Britain, Germany, Sweden and many other countries have had horrible experience too. Despite these developments, harnessing of nuclear energy by France, Japan and others continues with caution.

As a matter of fact, MNCs, Governments and bankers showed little interest to revive the declining nuclear industry for more than two decades.

The scenario has now changed considerably. New technology, economics and changing geopolitics have made it conducive to produce more nuclear energy, which is clean and safe, if managed properly. Industrialists, Governments and technocrats have projected that the nuclear energy revival scenario will happen in early 21st century. Electricity from atomic power plants will provide carbon-free clean energy and it is now receiving moral support from renowned environmentalists as well. There is every possibility that the automobile industry will get a booster by switching over from oil to electricity. Though the nuclear power plants are enormously expensive to build, once installed, they are very cheap to run.

(The writer, a former Reader in Chemistry. Presidency College, Kolkata, has been associated with the UGC and UNICEF)