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India’s Energy Security: Nuclear Power Sector

 



 

Nuclear energy is undoubtedly most controversial, yet critical part for India’s future energy security. As we know India’s annual energy demand is expected to rise to 800 GW by 2032, it is very important to consider every source of energy in the optimum energy mix. Arguments in favor of nuclear energy become even more compelling if we consider vast thorium reserves that India have. Yet there are strong and reasonable apprehensions against use of nuclear energy which can’t be ignored. Stress can be laid on cautious development, safety precautions in operations and disposal of wastes through continuous innovations, and also on minimization of waste generation. But development of nuclear energy can’t be stonewalled because of such concerns.

India Nuclear Program has roots in establishment of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1945 with initiative Dr. H. Bhabha. It undertook research in nuclear physics and cosmic rays. In 1948 Atomic Energy Commission was constituted to work for Indian Nuclear Program. Main area of commission was prospection of nuclear raw material resources of the country. India has insufficient Uranium reserves of 1-2% of global reserves, but is endowed with one of the largest reserves of Thorium which constitute about 30 % of global reserves.

Thorium however is not fissile and can’t be used directly to trigger Nuclear Reaction. But it is ‘fertile’ and what makes it Nuclear Fuel is the fact that its isotope Thorium – 232 can be converted to Uranium -233 which is ‘fissile’. This process of conversion is called ‘Transmutation’. To exploit Thorium reserves Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha conceived ‘3 Stage Nuclear Program’ which is explained below.

1st stage of Nuclear Program –

Reactor Used – Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor

Fuel Used – Uranium

Moderator and Coolant – Heavy water and Light water

Uranium in its natural form consists of .7 % of isotope Uranium-235 which is fissile. Remaining 99.7 % consist of Uranium – 238 which is ‘Fertile’ not fissile. Uranium is generally enriched before put to use by which proportion of U-235 increases in comparison to U-238. When Nuclear reaction takes place Neutron is bombarded on nuclei. This splits the atom in 2 parts (sometimes 3 parts) and releases significant amount of energy. Along with these 3 neutrons gets released which collides and splits some other U-235 nuclei; this is what results in ‘self-sustaining chain reaction’. As we can see neutrons released (3 per fission) are more than neutrons consumed (1 per fission), overtime there are surplus neutrons after the chain of reactions.


Some of these surplus neutrons get absorbed in other isotope U-238 (which forms 99.7 % of uranium) to give plutonium (Pu- 239), which is ‘fissile’ (by transmutation).

As a result spent fuel of at first stage consists of Pu-239 and significant amount of U-238 which didn’t get any Neutron to get converted in plutonium. This fuel then goes to 2nd Stage which consists of Fast Breeder reactor.

Why heavy Water is used? – It Moderates the speed of Neutrons released from reaction. So that its probability of fission with U-235 is increased significantly.

2nd Stage of Nuclear Program

Reactor Used – Fast breeder Reactor

Fuel – Mixture of Uranium-238 and Plutonium-239

No Moderator is needed

Sodium is used as coolant

Pu-239 is a fissile material and on reaction this too results in extra neutrons than current chain reaction needs. These extra neutrons again are absorbed by U-238 and converted to Pu-239. At this stage more fuel is generated than is consumed. That is why it is called ‘Breeder reactor’.

This reactor doesn’t use Moderator as at high speed of neutrons only, does Pu-239 produces extra neutrons.

Further, 2nd stage is crucial for 3rs stage as it will convert Thorium-232 (which occurs naturally) into Uranium – 233 by transmutation. This will be done in following way –

Once sufficient Power Generation capacity is achieved at 2nd stage and there will be good reserves of Pu-239, then Th-232 will be introduced at the periphery of the core(blanket material) fuel which will be Pu-239 alone (instead of present mixture of Pu-239 & U-238). This while core fuel will be consumed and extra neutrons will be created. Again, Th-232 will get converted in U-233.

In 3rd stage of nuclear program, again Th-232 will be at periphery of Core fuel i.e. U-233, which further will result in U-233 fuel.

The AHWR is another innovative concept, which will act as a bridge between the first and third stage essentially to advance thorium utilization without undergoing second stage of the three stage program. It uses light water as coolant and heavy water as moderator. It is fuelled by a mixture of Pu239 and Th232 with a sizeable amount of power coming from Thorium 232


.

Thorium is said to be more efficient and gives less radioactive waste than Uranium and plutonium. Also, plutonium can be separated from waste and can be used to make bombs. This is not possible with Thorium.

 

Progress so far

Power station

Operator

State

Type

Units

Total capacity (Netto, MW)

Kaiga NPCIL Karnataka PHWR 202 x 4 808
Kakrapar NPCIL Gujarat PHWR 202 x 2 404
Madras NPCIL Tamil Nadu PHWR 205 x 2 410
Narora NPCIL Uttar Pradesh PHWR 202 x 2 404
Rajasthan NPCIL Kota Rajasthan PHWR 90 x 1
187 x 1
202 x 4
1085
Tarapur NPCIL Maharashtra BWR (PHWR) 150 x 2
490 x 2
1280
Kudankulam NPCIL Tamil Nadu VVER-1000 917 x 1 917[66]
Total 21 5308

The projects under construction are:

Power station

Operator

State

Type

Units

Total capacity (Netto, MW)

Expected Commercial Operation

Madras Bhavini Tamil Nadu PFBR 470 x 1 470 March 2015
Kakrapar Unit 3 and 4 NPCIL Gujarat PHWR 630 x 2 1260 Unit 3: 2015 June, Unit 4: 2015 December
Rajasthan Unit 7 and 8 NPCIL Rajasthan PHWR 630 x 2 1260 Unit 7: 2016 June, Unit 8: 2016 December
Kudankulam Unit 2 NPCIL Tamil Nadu VVER-1000 1000 x 1 1000 2014 December
Total 6 3907

The planned projects are:

Power station

Operator

State

Type

Units

Total capacity (Netto, MW)

Gorakhpur NPCIL Haryana PHWR 630 x 4 2,800[70][71]
Chutka NPCIL Madhya Pradesh PHWR 630 x 2 1,260
Mahi Banswara NPCIL Rajasthan PHWR 630 x 2 1,260
Kaiga NPCIL Karnataka PHWR 630 x 2 1,260
Madras NPCIL Tamil Nadu FBR(Fast breeder reactor) 470 x 2 940
Site to be decided AHWR 300 x 1 300
Kudankulam Tamil Nadu VVER-1000 917 x 2 1834
Jaitapur Maharashtra EPR 1650 x 6 9900
Kovvada Andhra Pradesh ESBWR 1594 x 6 9564[72]
Mithi Virdi (Viradi) Gujarat AP1000 1100 x 6 6600[73]
Total 33 34498

 

Source: Wikipedia

1st Stage of Program is undertaken by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd whereas 2nd stage is under Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd. (Bhavini) for Fast Breeder reactors.

India has now capacity to build completely indigenous Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors

These are supported mainly by two research centers – Bhabha Atomic Research Center and Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research .

1st two reactors were at Tarapore, in Maharashtra. These were of ‘Boiling water type’ and were not part of 3 stage Nuclear program. These were American reactors supplied General Electricals . Later in late 1960’s, with help of Canada, construction PHWR was started in Rawatbhata, Rajasthan. All important designs and components were supplied by Canada, but construction, installation and commissioning was done by India. Later due to Pokhran test Canada withdrew its support. This resulted in faster development of indigenous capabilities.

 

‘Fast Breeder Test Reactor’ is in operation at Indira Gandhi Centre For atomic Research, Kalpakam since 1985. It has provided valuable experience to our scientists and researchers all this while. Significantly, almost all the components, processes, fuel mixtures etc. deployed here are Indigenous, demonstrating capacity of our R&D facilities. BHAVINI has built a prototype Fast breeder Reactor with capacity of 500 Mw which is expected to go critical soon.

There are 21 plants in operation which constitute about 2.5% of total Installed electricity capacity of 223 GW. Indian Energy Policy envisages increase nuclear capacity to 20 GW by 2020 and 63 GW by 2032. To achieve this, large nuclear reactors such a Kudankulam 1, having 1000 MW are being established. This plant has Voda-Voda Energo Reactor.

In 2010 , NPCIL entered in MOU with French company AREVA for supply of Evolutionary Pressurized Reactors. These are 3rd generation pressurized water reactor and expected to be more efficient and economical. These Reactors are yet to start production anywhere in the world. Location of the project is at Jaitapur, Maharashtra and it will comprise units of 1650 MW, summing to 9.9 GW plant. Under MOU AREVA will undertake to operate the plant and there are disagreements over price of power supplied. DAE has expressed Rs 6.50/ unit us upper limit for power on the rational that by 2019 coal generated power will cost around Rs 6.20/ unit.

Another big upcoming plant under NPCIL is one at Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh. It will operate Light Water Reactor and its capacity will be nearly 9500 MW ( 6 nuclear reactors).

India’s Nuclear Deals

Indo US NuclearIt was landmark deal, signed in 2008, which resulted in end of India’s isolation for civil nuclear technology and supply nuclear fuel. After 1972’s Pokhran tests, there were sanctions on India which prohibited all countries to supply anything for India’s nuclear program.

But it placed India’s civil nuclear installations under watch of International Atomic Energy agency subject to India’s ratification of ‘Additional protocol’ which it did recently. Under this agreement US expected to supply India nuclear Reactors. US nuclear corporate lobby was decisive force behind this agreement.

Consequently, there was ‘India specific waiver’ by Nuclear Supplier’s Group, which was vehemently opposed by China. Now India is only country outside NSG’s 5 member (US, UK, China, France & Russia) who possess nuclear weapon but is allowed to trade in Civil Nuclear Materials. (Japan & Germany are non-nuclear powers as they enjoy US umbrella)

Similar deals were entered in with France, South Korea and latest with Australia.

But other contentious issue has been of Civil Nuclear Liability Act of India. It originally held that on accident operator (which as of now will be NPCIL) has liability up to Rs 500 crores and rest will be paid by government. This provision has significance only if government intends to privatize Nuclear Plant operations.

Further, Operator can claim compensation up to 1500 crore from foreign supplier, if provision to this regard is there in contract.

Another provision states that, if on accident patent or latent defect is established in components supplied or damage is result of intentional act or omission by the supplier, then right to compensation will be unlimited. For this operator can sue supplier. Time for compensation is fixed at 10 years

This is contrary to international law on nuclear liability agreed upon in Vienna Convention, which keep supplier aloof from any liability. Hence liability of Operator is absolute.

This while safeguarding Indian interests has kept nuclear suppliers away from India. Since this law came in force, not a single new deal has been agreed at.

Nuclear plants consist of thousands of components manufactured by different companies. If any single supplier doesn’t agree with this clause, then whole deal will get down.

Nuclear supplier claims that probability of nuclear accident is extremely low (once in thousands of years). But there have been accidents like Chernobyl, Ukraine where 31 people died and costs were as high as 18 billion $ in 1987. Similarly recently in Fukushima, Japan nuclear installations got damaged in a Tsunami and there has been huge radioactive contaminations since then. In India, given its fragile ecology and dense population, loss if any will be significantly higher. And also this is a Human Right issue for people affected. Civil Nuclear Law of India doesn’t give power to sue to victims, but to operators.

 

India’s Nuclear Institutional Structure

 


In this chart note that –

  1. AERB is responsible for regulating and monitoring the safety aspects of DAE. But, DAE provides Technical, financial and staff support to AERB.
  2. Secretary to government of DAE is Ex officio chairman of AEC. And yet later is expected to oversee former and formulate policy.

     

    Bedrock principle of any regulator is that it should be independent of influence of the organization which it is expected to oversee or regulate. But here we can see there is inherent conflict of interest and Nuclear energy is an issue so important and vulnerable that such loophole is unaffordable.

     

    Further Atomic Energy act of 1962, protects information related to nuclear establishment and empowers DAE to deny information. This is opposed by environmentalists and others on the ground that people have right to know everything about them, so as to be aware of risks associated. This issue is controversial as disclosure of some information can jeopardize national security interest. Still there can be greater disclosures regarding safety and risks of particular technology, so that there could be more informed and productive debate when projects are conceived at first place.

     

    Target set by DAE is that by 2050 33 % of India’s total electricity requirement by 2050 will be from nuclear power. This comes out to be about 275000 MW. This target seems unachievable and undesirable because of following concerns –

    1. India’s domestic Uranium Reserve can support only 10000 MW of energy. So our future potential depends upon development of third stage of Nuclear Program. Otherwise, there will be again overdependence upon imported Uranium as it is case with Oil currently. Hence, long term strategy will be only determined when third stage is functional.
    2. Current Nuclear reactors consume significant amount of water. So most of upcoming plants will be set up near sea costs. It will put pressure on the coastline as India’s Western coastline is home to fragile ecology of Western Ghats.
    3. Further, till now only 21 plants have been operational. There are long gestation periods which increase costs of the plant significantly. Only a Nuclear Industry revolution in the future in nuclear energy can make this achievable.
    4. New safeguard requirements post Fukushima disaster, has pushed per MW costs of nuclear reactors significantly higher in comparison to Thermal, solar and wind plants. Jaitapur plant in Maharashtra (AREVA) is expected to cost 21 crore/ MW in comparison other sources cost 8-10 crore/ MW. It is to be seen that whether differences of operational/ running costs justify such higher capital expenditure on nuclear plants.
    5. Some argue that Total costs of a Nuclear Lifecycle which involves Mining of Uranium, transportation and storage, capital costs of plants , processing/ reprocessing of plants, possible disasters and then handling of waste generated for hundreds of years is significantly more that economic value generated during lifetime of the functioning of the plant, which is generally 40-50 years.
    6. Nuclear installations will be favorite targets of terrorists (also in case of war) which can cause irreversible damage to people living in nearby areas.
    7. In long run if worldwide dependence on Nuclear energy increases, it will be most unavoidable way of nuclear proliferation as interest and attempt to invest in indigenous industry will increase. Otherwise smaller counties will continue to buy relevant technologies or components from a few western countries which will serve private interest of few.
    8. India doesn’t yet have credible waste disposal policy and infrastructure in place.

       

Strong arguments which justify use of nuclear energy are –

  1. No greenhouse gasses are emitted in Nuclear Power generation and in this way environmental costs are significantly less.
  2. Quantities of nuclear fuel needed are considerably less than thermal power plants. Fr eg 10000 MW generation by coal will need 30-35 million tons of coal, but nuclear fuel needed will be only 300-350 tons.
  3. It generates very limited waste in quantity (though far more hazardous in quality).

 

Costs of Nuclear Power in India

The nuclear power tariffs are competitive with those of thermal power stations located away from coal pitheads. The tariffs of one station Tarapore 1&2 are 94 paise/kWh and that of three other older stations (like Narora) is about Rs.2. In the year 2007-08 the average tariff of nuclear power stations was Rs.2.28.

The average tariffs of new plants to be set up, both indigenous and imported, is expected to be about Rs. 2.50 in the year 2015.

But costs of power from new nuclear reactors are increasing significantly. New PHWR power costs between Rs. 6.2-6.5/Unit and as we have seen if we take whole nuclear life cycle costs, it will be even more.

 

We can conclude that nuclear energy, though is critical for India’s energy security but is not panacea for the problem. People of India have right to have safe and sustainable energy. So future development should depend upon cost benefit analysis taking into account all the externalities involved in various components of energy mix. If this is done, it is most likely that policy will get incline strongly in favor of non-conventional sources of energy that is solar, wind and biomass.