The news that India has signed up for the import of six nuclear reactors from the USA has been greeted with elation in certain quarters. Certainly, the USA has much to be satisfied about as its nuclear industry has been in the doldrums with a major player, Westinghouse, rendered bankrupt. What about the Indian scenario? This is being written on World Water Day. Mankind has lived for thousands of years without electricity, as indeed is still the case for 30 per cent of its villages, but no substitute has yet been found for water. Ground water, rivers and streams are in perilous condition with villagers in UP and Rajasthan having to walk many km to fetch drinking water.
Since the days of the Bhabha- Nehru bhai-bhai relationship, atomic energy and its offshoots have always occupied pride-of place in terms of funding. Most advisers to the Prime Minister are from the Department of Atomic Energy and have his confidence. The AEC empire has enlarged to encompass a large number of scientific organisations, ranging from mathematics to high energy physics and consumes one-third of the R & D budget. In the early 1950s, energy from the atom was touted to produce “energy to cheap to monitor”. The Cold War and the competition in atomic stockpiles was a compelling incentive. Britain was a pioneer and later France and China also joined the race with reactors as well as demonstrable weapons. Seventy years, later atomic energy produces only 11 per cent of the world’s energy and in India it is stuck at 3 per cent. Why ? With centralized generation requiring extensive grid lines, it has left 30 per cent of India’s villages bereft of electricity in the 21st century. One can cite the low price of oil as one of the reasons, but like oil, Uranium is a limited resource and its reserves might run out by the end of the century. Nuclear reactors do not emit carbon dioxide, but with radioactive elements as an essential byproduct it can hardly be called ` clean’. Are we to leave tonnes of radioactive waste with “half-lives” of thousands of years around our plants as a legacy for generations to come ? No safe waste disposal process has been found till now. Thorium reactors depend on conversion of Thorium into U233 and are still in the R & D stage in India and may take decades to become viable. These are theorised to produce less radioactive waste.
Partha Sarathi Chakrabarti has made a strong plea which is simplistic in skipping over the major shortcomings. Nuclear energy is not cheap as claimed, but is rated at $6000 / KW compared with $1600/KW for wind, $1800/ KW for fixed solar PV installations. Any cost comparison must take into account radioactive waste disposal / storage and de-commissioning of a nuclear plant. Recently this has been estimated at $20 billion for a nuclear plant in the UK. As is well-known Uranium occurs overwhelmingly as the isotope 238 with only 0.7 per cent being in the fissile form of U 235. Thus the essential process of enrichment is energy intensive and subject to global sanctions. This is the process that A Q Khan took from the Netherlands and started the nuclear weapons programme in Pakistan. Reactors need 3 – 5 per cent enrichment, whereas weapons require anything from 25 per cent upwards. The results of the fission reaction of U 235 are mainly elements in the middle of the Periodic Table such as Barium, Calcium. Plutonium is produced by occasional capture of slow neutrons by U238.There is no quantum mechanical magic in producing electricity from nuclear reactions ~ steam or water at high temperatures have to be produced to drive turbines. Therein lies the rub. A 1000 MW reactor requires 1 million gallons of cooling water per day to keep it running. It was this loss of coolant that produced the disaster at Fukushima. Writing on World Water Day, it hardly needs to be emphasised that water is a scarce and endangered resource with both rivers and ground water in India running dry. Thus most atomic power stations are located near the sea, changing the ecology of the shoreline and also driving away fishermen. With five Russian reactors already in the pipeline, location of new reactors can pose a major problem. Apart from the requirement of water, a radiation- protected safe zone is essential. It can also contain the buried radioactive waste. India does not have a large hinterland almost free of population such as the USA, China or Canada. Australia with its vast stock of minerals and coal including Uranium, runs no reactors and is increasingly dependent on renewable energy. Further nuclear plants take a decade or more to commission, whereas solar PV plants which are modular in nature with similar capacity can be installed in a year or so. The Sagar island relied on diesel for decades as no grid line reached the place. Now solar PV, both rooftop and centralized, has changed the lifestyle of the inhabitants allowing children to study at night. The North-East with its difficult terrain for grid connection is also ideal for different types of renewable energy, including biomass. Similarly Andaman and Nicobar islands, with their strategic location, had depended on diesel ferried from the mainland at great cost. Now 2 solar PV plants with 25 MW & 20 MW capacity are set to reduce this dependence.
The one clear advantage of nuclear and other centralised plants such as coal and oil are their high load factor i.e. these can run at 80 – 90 per cent of the rated capacity whereas renewable sources such as wind and solar, due to their variable nature have capacities of 15 – 20 per cent. Here wind obviously scores over solar, which depends on hours of sunshine. Both are location specific and must be installed with the Wind and Solar Maps of India in mind. For example 2 wind turbines installed at the tip of Sagar island proved completely useless as there was hardly any wind except during the pre-monsoon season. While solar PV sets for irrigation requires no storage, for domestic and industrial use this is a must. The cost of battery storage is estimated at $2000 / KW which still makes solar much less expensive than nuclear. Here there is much scope for alternative cheaper storage.As far as nuclear reactors are concerned, smaller types are being developed in the USA for possible installation on oceans or waterbodies. However the Fast Breeder Reactor, which produces Plutonium as a byproduct is beset with problems. It requires highly corrosive liquid sodium as a coolant at 4500 C. As such Japan and even France have discarded their FBR projects and only Russia has a reactor running. India has an FBR programme with a prototype 500 MW due to go critical in 2019. It was expected to be commissioned in 2012. Unfortunately unlike ISRO, whose successes and failures are made public, the AEC keeps information under wraps. There has been leakage of radioactive water from reactors from time to time but these have been hushed up. Contract labourers have been sent in for clearing such waste, oblivious of the danger posed to these innocents. Scientists who have disclosed such incidents have become persona non grata. Uranium mining in Jadugoda is also a hazardous activity, despite denials. High incidence of cancer as revealed by impartial sources is testimony to these lapses.
It is strange that despite NPL in its initial days working on solar thermal processes, India with its vast exposure to solar energy had to rely on the energy crisis in the West in the 1970s to gear up its solar energy programme. With the commissioning of the Department of Non-conventional Energy under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, an encouraging start was made in the 1980s with Central Electronics Ltd, Sahibabad playing a leading role. With fully indigenous technology PV cell production reached a few MW / year and waterpumping street-lighting installations were also carried out. However with limited vision of the bureaucrats at the helm of affairs, the programme lost momentum just as China was embarking on its ambitious programme to capture world markets. The advantages of solar energy are obvious ~ no fuel, minimum maintenance, no coolant water, installation in arid deserts, modular nature, rooftop or centralized, ideal for street lighting with low wattage LEDs. Unfortunately India produces no Polysilicon, the basic material for solar PV, and as such has become totally dependent on imports from China and Taiwan. In the process PV companies in India have stopped cell fabrication and are only going in for assembly and packaging, which requires minimum investment. Thus the ‘Make in India’ programme certainly requires rejuvenation.
(The writer is formerly Professor and Dean IIT Kharagpur and Professor, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore)