The debate as to whether nuclear power is a safe, suitable and essential option for India has been going on for many decades. While the proponents of the nuclear power have been offering many arguments in favour of the option, there have been any numbers of issues raised by those who think it is not the best solution to meet the legitimate energy requirements of our society.
While more and more complex safety systems are being designed and built for the safety of nuclear power stations, it should be noted that they are only increasing the number of sub-systems and the complexity. Such complex systems can result in increasing the risk of failure of individual sub-systems/sub-components, and hence in increase in the number of automatic shutdown of reactors. The rapidity at which a minor problem in the complex system of safety can escalate into a major disaster is great in a nuclear power station, as experienced at Chernobyl.
So much has been said about the capability of Indian nuclear establishments, especially the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), to ensure complete safety of nuclear power projects. The common belief amongst the public is that the people manning AERB are generally deputed from Nuclear Power Corporation Ltd., which is the operator of the nuclear power plants in the country. In such a situation can we be assured of the complete operational independence in AERB? As far as Chernobyl disaster is concerned Indian nuclear authorities keep saying that that “… secrecy was part of the Soviet culture…” How transparent are the issues with our own nuclear establishments?
There have been suggestions from Indian nuclear authorities that the safe storage of nuclear waste is technically feasible during its active life time. Is it really so, and if so, what about the huge costs involved? Are the efforts to keep nuclear waste safe for thousands of years worthy of all the risks involved? In this regard there are credible and serious concerns that whereas the present generation may get the benefit of electricity from nuclear power, the future generations have to deal with all the risks and costs associated with the spent fuel. Is this fair or responsible?
What about the security of supply of nuclear fuel required for the large no. of reactors (as many as 40 additional reactors as per one estimate) proposed? While the difficulties encountered in getting reliable fuel supply to nuclear reactors supplied by Canada are still fresh in our memory, how can we be certain that the same situation will not be repeated in the future? The main reason provided for lower Plant Load Factor of the existing nuclear power station in the country is the shortage of nuclear fuel. If our society decides to spend horrendous amounts of our natural resources in establishing 40 additional reactors, how can we be assured that all these reactors will have adequate quantities of fuel available throughout their economic life time? The enormous difficulties being encountered in arriving at a political consensus regarding the 1-2-3 agreement with USA, which is supposed to provide adequate fuel supply, indicates that there is a clear lack of public credibility for the nuclear power option.
In this regard the issues, which have been raised in a number of papers released within the country on the safety and economics of nuclear industry, need be fully appreciated and addressed. One such paper, by Dr. M V Ramana of ISEC, Bangalore has established with reasonable amount of certainty that the real cost of a modern nuclear power station is clearly higher than that of a comparable size coal based power station. If we also take into objective account the long term storage costs and all the associated environmental and health costs, the nuclear power projects will be much costlier than the coal based power projects.
Although a massive amount of money is reported to have been spent on various activities associated with nuclear power research since independence, and the tall claims made by the proponents of nuclear power, the contribution of the nuclear power to the total installed power capacity in India as of now is only about 3.5%. As per Planning Commission’s Integrated Energy Policy document, the projected share of nuclear power in the country’s total installed power capacity by 2032 can only about 5%. For such a small share of the installed capacity, should the society adapt an option, which has failed to win public’s confidence even 6 decades after independence?
Efficiency increase in the end use of electricity, whether in lighting, heating or motive power etc. alone is estimated to provide more than 10% of virtual additional power capacity at probably 10% of the cost of new nuclear power plant without any of the attendant risks.
In the background of all these issues, and having accepted the existence of high degree of public health risks associated with nuclear power, the question to be asked of ourselves is whether nuclear power stations are critical for the development of all sections of our society, and whether we can achieve the adequate levels of Human Development Index without them.
The primary objective (or as in the words of official circles it is just electricity and nothing else!!!) of a nuclear power station is the production of electricity. There are many benign ways of producing the electricity. Has our society harnessed all the benign alternatives available for us to the maximum extent? What is the efficiency of the usage of the existing electricity generating capacity in the country? Is there a scope for meeting all the legitimate demand for electricity of our society by a combination of these benign options? Can an objective analysis of Costs V/S Benefits of a nuclear power project as compared to a coal or hydro power project prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is in the best interest of our society?
The electricity industry experts say that there are enough non-nuclear power options, including measures such as efficiency improvement, Demand Side Management, energy conservation and renewable energy sources to meet our legitimate electricity demands on a sustainable basis. The transmission and distribution losses prevailing in our system aloe is in the range of 25 to 30%. If these losses were to be brought down to the level of world best practice of below 10%, we can get about 15 to 20% more virtual capacity. Our society must seek satisfactory answer to all these relevant questions before embracing the nuclear power option for the future. It is not without solid basis that many countries are saying ‘no’ to them, while some countries are actively considering the decommissioning of many of the existing nuclear power stations.