A week after the IPCC released its final part of the fifth assessment report, Denmark, a small country in the European Union, has announced its plans to stop using fossil fuels in the near future. By 2050, it aims to become a fossil-fuel-free country by putting an end to the usage of fossil-fuel not just in power generation but also in transportation.
Recently, China, the world’s largest user of coal, has revealed its energy plans that include limiting consumption of coal. Although coal is the main energy source in China, it says, coal will not be used more than 62% in its energy generation from 2020.
Like China, other countries in the world can cap the usage of fossil fuels to begin with. And like Denmark, it can be planned to phase out the usage entirely. It is a strenuous task, indeed, but not impossible. “With appropriate policies and institutions, it is technically feasible to transition to a low-carbon economy”, said. Youba Sokona, the Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III in a recent press release of IPCC.
Indian power scenario
With changes in energy plans and policies that are taking place across the world to tackle climate change, let us look at the Indian power scenario and the options India has.
With more than 1.25 billion people, India has emerged as the fourth largest energy consumer (primary energy) in the world and as second in Asia.
Currently, fossil fuels are the mainstay of India’s power programme; about 67% of country’s total electricity is generated through thermal resources, predominantly coal. According to the BP Statistical Review, the country has consumed about 334 million tonnes of coal in 2013; and was the third-largest coal consumer and CO2 emitter among the countries of the world after China and United States.
In light of the IPCC’s recent report, this dependency on coal and other fossil fuels has to be brought down from high to low step by step. At the same time, the other power generation modes that emit no greenhouse gases like renewable and nuclear have to be increased multifold.
As the phase-out of fossil fuel accelerates, the burden shouldered by coal and oil will increasingly and obviously fall on these other sources. Increasing the capacity of hydel, which is presently in the second position in India after thermal, and renewables like wind and solar is necessary, but it can do only a little help to the staggeringly growing power demand.
But nuclear power that has a vast yet-to-be-tapped potential can cope with this swelling demand of energy. The country has the high level of technical expertise in nuclear power technology and its capabilities in nuclear power generation is world known. Although presently nuclear power in India contributes about 3% to the country’s total power generation, upon the exploiting of its enormous potential, it can increase energy security. In fact, about 60 years ago when plans were made to initiate nuclear power in India, a path to produce green power for centuries was also laid.
Dr. Hobi J Bhabha, the architect of Indian nuclear power programme
Three-stage nuclear power programme
Dr. Homi Jahangir Bhabha, an acclaimed nuclear scientist of India, had a profound insight that nuclear power was a viable and green source of energy that could provide for the electricity needs of the nation on a sustainable basis. He learnt that the uranium, an element used as fuel in a nuclear reactor, in the country was limited. At the same time, he was also aware that the thorium available in the country was huge and almost 30% of world’s thorium reserves were in India. So, Bhabha came up with a proposal that the utilization of plentiful thorium in power generation would be the best option for India to meet the huge electricity demands in the coming years. But, the biggest challenge in front of him was that thorium could not be used directly as fuel and there was no such technology that existed. Then, he meticulously devised a plan, called the three-stage nuclear power programme, to exploit the abundant thorium available in the country. A clever plan, indeed!
The Indian three-stage nuclear power programme
His plan has three stages of nuclear power generation, spanning out over a few decades. In stage 1, the naturally available uranium will be used to generate electricity by deploying Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). This stage has a potential of producing 320 GW-year. At present, the country operates about 18 such PHWRs of varied sizes, with an installed capacity of 4460 MW. The spent fuel of these reactors, as per Bhabha’s plan, is the cornerstone of the second stage nuclear power programme. The Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) of the second stage can use plutonium as fuel (derived from the spent fuel of stage 1), with thorium as blanket. Besides electricity generation, the PFBR will produce 233U. Through this second stage, India can produce up to 42000 GW-year. A prototype FBR is now under the advanced stages of construction near Chennai at Tamil Nadu.
The third stage of the Indian nuclear power programme is where the key answer for the country’s long-term energy needs lies. The technology to be used in this stage will unleash the usage of vast thorium that is now lying idle. The AHWR or Advanced Heavy Water Reactor, as it is called, will use the fuel produced in the second stage, 233U, along with thorium as blanket, to generate electricity. “The design for AHWR has recently been finalized and a 300-MW reactor will soon come up”, said Sekhar Basu, Director of Bhabha Atomic Power Station, Mumbai, in a recent media interview. As per the design, the AHWRs will have a life of 100 years unlike the existing reactors that have an average life of about 40 years, and will have futuristic safety features. Upon launching of commercial thorium-based reactors, the total potential for nuclear electricity generation can go up to a prodigious level of 1,55,000 GW-year.
Nuclear power generation is safe. India has been operating nuclear power reactors immaculately for several decades. In its over 400 reactor-years of experience, there has been no nuclear accident in the country. Through nuclear technology so far, since the beginning of commercial nuclear operation in the country in 1969 till October this year, about 457051 million units of electricity has been produced in India. But what is remarkable is that more than 400 million tons of CO2, a major greenhouse gas, has been avoided during this power production, which otherwise would have been added to the environment had fossil fuels been used.
With promising potential, nuclear can play a greater role to meet the ever-increasing energy needs of the country with no greenhouse gas emissions and can be the best alternate to fossil fuels.
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