Nuclear Power Projects: Prospects & Challenges

Despite the strong rationale for reducing GHG emissions, the installation of nuclear power projects is slower than other projects. A closer look. - Ashok Upadhyay

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Nuclear Power Projects: Prospects & Challenges

The emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and their implications to climate change have sparked global interest in understanding the relative contribution of the electrical generation industry. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world emits approximately 27 giga tonnes of CO2e from multiple sources, with electrical production emitting approximately 37 per cent of global emissions. In addition, electricity demand is expected to increase by 50 per cent over the next 20 years. This substantial increase will require the construction of many new power generating facilities and offers the opportunity to construct these new facilities in a way to limit GHG emissions.

There are many different electrical generation methods, each having advantages and disadvantages with respect to operational cost, environmental impact, and other factors. In relation to GHG emissions, each generation method produces GHGs in varying quantities through construction, operation (including fuel supply activities), and de-commissioning. Some generation methods such as coal fired power plants release the majority of GHGs during operation. Others, such as wind power and nuclear power, release the majority of emissions during construction and decommissioning. Accounting for emissions from all phases of the project (construction, operation, and decommissioning) is called a lifecycle approach. Normalising the lifecycle emissions with electrical generation allows for a fair comparison of the different generation methods on a per gigawatt-hour basis. The lower the value, the less GHG emissions are emitted.

Nuclear power as one of the significant options for meeting future world energy needs at low cost and in an environmentally acceptable manner. Nuclear power is the fourth-largest source of electricity in India after thermal, hydroelectric and renewable sources of electricity. Nuclear power plant (NPP) uses the sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6 per cent of the world’s energy and 14 per cent of the world’s power, with the U.S., France and Japan together accounting for about 50 per cent of nuclear generated power.

Inevitably, there will be a high degree of government involvement in nuclear power, even in market economies, to regulate safety, waste, and proliferation risk. This is, in itself, another challenge for nuclear power. There is considerable variation in how different countries approach the issues of safety, proliferation, and waste management. This often complicates the role of governments in setting international rules – especially for preventing proliferation, but also for safety and waste management – that serve common interests. Poor safeguarding of nuclear materials or facilities in any nation could result in acquisition of nuclear explosives by a rogue state or terrorist group for use in another nation. The Chernobyl accident demonstrated the potential for radioactivity to spread across borders and thus the importance of uniformly high safety standards and advanced safety technologies in nuclear power projects. Nuclear energy as a safe source of energy has been still a subject of constant debate.

Need of Nuclear Power Generation

The generation of electricity from fossil fuels, is a major and growing contributor to the emission of carbon dioxide – a GHG that contributes significantly to global warming. Although natural gas, and to some degree oil, had noticeably lower GHG emissions, biomass, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar photovoltaic all had lifecycle GHG emission intensities that are significantly lower than fossil fuel-based generation. At least for the next few decades, there are only a few realistic options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation:

  • Increase efficiency in electricity generation and use.
  • Expand use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal.
  • Capture carbon dioxide emissions at fossil-fuelled (especially coal) electric generating plants.
  • Increase use of nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants achieve a high degree of safety through the defence-in-depth approach where, among other things, the plant is designed with multiple physical barriers. These additional physical barriers are generally not built within other electrical generating systems, and as such, the GHG emissions attributed to construction of a nuclear power plant are higher than emissions resulting from construction of other generation methods. Even when emissions from the additional safety barriers are included, the lifecycle emissions of nuclear energy are considerably lower than fossil fuel-based generation methods. Averaging the results of the studies places nuclear energy’s 30 tonnes CO2e/GWh emission intensity at 7 per cent of the emission intensity of natural gas, and only 3 per cent of the emission intensity of coal fired power plants. In addition, the lifecycle GHG emission intensity of nuclear power generation is consistent with renewable energy sources including biomass, hydroelectric and wind.

In view of the above, it is observed that GHG emissions of nuclear power plants are among the lowest of any electricity generation method and on a lifecycle basis are comparable to wind, hydro-electricity and biomass. Lifecycle emissions of natural gas generation are 15 times greater than nuclear whereas lifecycle emissions of coal generation are 30 times greater than nuclear which shows that the nuclear power generation is environment friendly. Moreover, the operational cost of electrical generation from nuclear power station is lower than coal-based power stations.

India’s as well as Asia’s first nuclear reactor was the Apsara research reactor commissioned on August 4, 1956. The agreement for India’s first nuclear power plant at Rajasthan, RAPP-1, was signed in 1963, followed by RAPP-2 in 1966. India is a major nuclear energy player in South Asia. The nuclear programme in India is conceived on a unique sequential three-stages essentially envisaged to use thorium, an abundantly available resource in the country. This sequential three-stage programme is based on a closed fuel cycle, where the spent fuel of one stage is reprocessed to produce fuel for the next stage. The closed fuel cycle thus multiplies manifold the energy potential of the fuel and greatly reduces the quantity of waste generated. Currently, India has an installed capacity of approximately 5,780 MW from nuclear sources.

Issues with Nuclear Power

Despite the strong rationale for reducing GHG emissions that contribute to global warming, for meeting increasing demand for electricity, and for improving the national security aspects of energy supply, the installation of nuclear power projects is slower than other projects. There is considerable anti-nuclear sentiment in the country. There are several reasons why nuclear power has not met the expectations for capacity growth projected several decades ago. One factor is that the public perception of nuclear energy is unfavourable, in part due to concern about effects of radiation that the public associates with nuclear energy. These challenges are:

Need of independent Regulator

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Body (AERB) has functioned as regulator in-charge of the nuclear power reactors in the country. AERB draws professionals from Department of Atomic Energy facilities as one cannot doubt the technical competence of AERB professionals. However, recently, AERB’s role and its importance as a regulator become prominent in public discourse on account of its structural dependency. With the separation of the military and civilian nuclear programme, it is imperative that the regulator is independent financially as well as statutorily.

A close tie between the regulator and regulated is never desirable. A move towards this has been made with the draft legislation on “Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Act” under consideration. This will help to provide the statutory independence to the regulator. However, a major challenge is finding suitable scientists with relevant knowledge outside the ambit of the nuclear establishment. However, it must be mentioned that the lack of any major accident have shown that the regulator in the India has been effective. The question thus is the perceived subordination lead to erosion of public confidence on AERB?

Nuclear Fuel Availability

Domestic availability of uranium, the only fuel source as of now, is one of the major concerns in going ahead with the nuclear programme. Presently it is mined only in Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, which is also of low quality. A few other sites, including in Karnataka and Meghalaya, reportedly have uranium deposits. The techno-eco feasibility of opening new mines would however very much depend on the eco-sensitive nature of these sites and the public perception in the area. An estimate of resource availability is also a matter of contention. The possibility of import of uranium, which has opened up now, could ease the situation. The concern here is the somewhat varied perceptions and approaches on part of the potential exporting countries.

Import Cost

Nuclear power has higher overall lifetime costs compared to natural gas with combined cycle turbine technology and coal, at least in the absence of a carbon tax or an equivalent “cap and trade” mechanism for reducing carbon emissions. The India is planning to import high capacity reactors from abroad. The cost of these reactors is considerable higher compared to domestic ones. If a domestic reactor costs around five to seven crores per MW the estimated cost of an imported reactor is found to very between 16 crore/MW to 36 crore/MW based on the technology. This could have a significant impact on the cost of power.

Higher Capital Cost

New nuclear power plants typically have high capital costs for building the first several plants, after which costs tend to fall for each additional plant built as the supply chains develop and the regulatory processes settle down. Fuel, operational and maintenance costs are relatively small components of the total cost. Most operating nuclear plants are economical to operate when costs going forward are considered, i.e. when sunk capital and construction costs are ignored. However, new plants appear to be more expensive than alternate sources of base load generation, notably coal and natural gas fired electricity generation, when both capital and operating costs are taken into account. Coal plants have capital costs intermediate between those of gas and nuclear. However, if CO2 emissions were in the future to become subject to control and a significant “price” placed on emissions, the relative economics could become much more favourable to nuclear power.

Waste Disposal

Nuclear power has perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects, heightened by the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactor accidents, but also by accidents at fuel cycle facilities in the United States, Russia, and Japan. There is also growing concern about the safe and secure transportation and disposal of nuclear materials and the security of nuclear facilities from terrorist attack. There are many radioactive waste streams created in various parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear power has unresolved challenges in long-term management of radioactive wastes. The United States and other countries have yet to implement final disposition of spent fuel or high-level radioactive waste streams created at various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. Since these radioactive wastes present some danger to future generations. The management and disposal of high-level radioactive spent fuel from the nuclear fuel cycle is one of the most intractable problems facing the nuclear power industry throughout the world.  The spent fuel from nuclear reactors contains radioactive material that presents health and environmental risks that persist for tens of thousands of years. At present, no nation has successfully demonstrated a disposal system for these nuclear wastes.

International Policies

Opening up the possibility of trade has helped India secure fuel supply for those reactors which are under the IAEA safeguard. A growing dependency on imported fuel could be a cause for concern in future as imports are contingent on international sentiments. Currently the NSG has made an exception for India, through there are regular voices of disclosure due to this, for instance, both Australia and Japan have expressed reservations about India’s position on the CTBT and NPT, with several within the countries demanding for more stringent controls on the Indian nuclear programme. While current administrations in the two countries are more interested to fix a deal with India (uranium exports from Australia and technology from Japan), the negotiations have been protected. Strategic considerations also become important while considering uranium imports.

Land-related Issues

Difficulties in acquiring land and issues faced in commencing work in previously acquired land are some of the crucial issues stalling the development of new power plants, as well as opening up of new mines. Public protests have been seen in Jaitapur, Kudankulum, and in Domiasiat in Meghalaya. Protest against large-scale infrastructure projects has been faced in several other sectors as well. While some of the reasons for these protests are systematic-insufficient compensation, bad implementation of rehabilitation and resettlement, no social impact assessments are carried out to gauge the impact of resettlement of people, insufficient consultation with the public etc. in the case of nuclear these larger systemic issues are also back-grounded with public perception against nuclear. There is need to develop more robust and exclusive programme for all sectors to address the concerns of public around large infrastructure facilities.

Public Acceptance

Expanded deployment of nuclear power requires public acceptance of this energy source. Nuclear in India, due to the international isolation, hitherto, had been a subject removed away from the public eye. There seemed to be very little information coming out of the administration or the government about the programmes. There have been very little efforts in the part of the nuclear establishment to engage with the public at large. However, globally as well, post the Fukushima accident, the people’s opinion about the nuclear energy was on a decline, with increasing safety concerns about nuclear. Reflection of this trend was seen in India as well, with a growing discontent against nuclear projects. A strong negative public perception regarding the nuclear power and its effects has stalled the development of new sites at several places.

Nuclear Law

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill was passed by the Parliament and notified on 11th November, 2011 (Act No. 38 of 2010). The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Rules, 2011 have also been framed in respect of few provisions and was notified along with the Act. The conformity of the Act and the Rules with the internationally accepted principles of nuclear liability law, however, is an issue that is yet to be settled. The Rules that were made pursuant to the Act have not clarified the issues particularly the right of recourse provisions and liability limit. The international suppliers led by the US argue to introduce amendments to the law to harmonise it with the international principles. However, France and Russia through have reservations publicly, stated that they are willing to work within the Indian domestic legal framework. Issues related to right of recourse and supplier liability and extend of liability need to be addressed.

Observations and Recommendations

Unlike other energy forms, the risk debate on nuclear energy is due the fear of radiation consequences as a result of nuclear power plant operation and/or from an unfortunate event or an accident. The perception or reality of fear of extreme radiation that exist today is the outcome of multiple events and accidents. The benefits of nuclear energy for power production and its allied applications on the one side and the risks posed by nuclear energy to public health and safety, and to the environment on the other side have been a source of concern. The Government of India has taken a policy view that nuclear energy is necessary to meet the growing energy needs of the country. However, there are challenges on many front which need to be addressed in a pragmatic manner. Some of key steps required in this regard are:

  • Undertake assessment of the safety vulnerabilities of nuclear power plants in the light of lessons learned to date from the accident.
  • Strengthen the effectiveness of operating organisations with respect to nuclear safety.
  • Review and strengthen IAEA Safety Standards and improve their implementation.
  • Improve the effectiveness of the international legal framework.
  • Facilitate the development of the infrastructure necessary for States embarking on a nuclear power programme.
  • Strengthen and maintain capacity building.
  • Ensure the ongoing protection of people and the environment from ionising radiation following a nuclear emergency.
  • Enhance transparency and effectiveness of communication and improve dissemination of information.
  • Effectively utilise research and development.
  • Considering the large-scale expansion, the Government plans to empower AERB through a legislatively mandated independent regulator. The Government also needs to develop and strengthen supporting regulatory infrastructure.
  • It is also essential to develop a robust and transparent communication programme. This should focus on regular engagement of the people around existing nuclear facilities to address their concerns and informs them about the energy sector in their background.
  • There needs to be an increased effort to spread awareness and information about nuclear across the country as well as provide platforms for discussions.
  • Taking over the developmental works of affected villages and also nearby villages to create a positive atmosphere. Establishing schools and vocational training facilities in the villages around the power plant.

Way Forward

Today, nuclear power is not an economically competitive choice. Moreover, unlike other energy technologies, nuclear power requires significant government involvement because of safety, proliferation, and waste concerns. If in the future carbon dioxide emissions carry a significant “price,” however, nuclear energy could be an important indeed vital option for generating electricity. But we believe the nuclear option should be retained, precisely because it is an important carbon free source of power that can potentially make a significant contribution to future electricity supply. The role of nuclear power becomes very important to sustainable meet the growing energy of the country. It also has the potential to reduce the dependency on fossil fuels.


The growing demand for clean and commercial forms of energy has brought into focus the urgent need for reforms and policies that would have to be formulated for nuclear power projects. However, the government is yet to find a solution to the increasing public anxiety on nuclear energy expansion, which is only likely to aggravate if a credible, sustainable and impactful strategy for socialisation and nuclear education is not formulated. While the spontaneous resistance to nuclear energy has woken up the elitist establishment to new realities and ensured that the nuclear affairs can no longer be run behind closed doors, the critical Challenge is to convince the population on the imperative of nuclear energy for a country which is not just a fast-growing economy, but also slated to be the most populous in a few years’ time.

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