Understanding the Nuclear Option

Nuclear energy is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon power. Today, it is the fifth largest source of electricity for India. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) may prove to be game changers in the arena of nuclear power. Public opposition is the major hindrance in developing the nuclear power industry in India, however, that can be addressed by consultation, engagement, and education of local communities…

Image by Markus Distelrath from Pixabay

On 2nd of February 2024 India generated about 3% of its electricity from nuclear power as against 80% from coal. In contrast nuclear energy now provides about 10% of the world’s electricity from about 440 power reactors.

Nuclear is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon power (26% of the total in 2020). Thirteen countries in 2022 produced at least one-quarter of their electricity from nuclear. France gets up to around 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy, while Ukraine, Slovakia, Belgium and Hungary get about half from nuclear. The US gets 20% of its electricity from nuclear power and this could increase in the future. The UK, South Korea and even Japan – the site of the 2011 Fukushima accident – are planning to increase the share of nuclear power in their electricity mix. China is targeting a 10% share of nuclear power in its energy mix by 2035.

Source: Daily Report dated 03.02.2024 Grid Controllers of India
Source: IEA

If we were to target the same share by 2040, then considering the additional power demand on account of electrification – a key element of the energy transition – our nuclear power capacity would have to expand from 6.8GW today to around 65GW. Our current target is only to have 22.5GW capacity by 2031.

Nuclear safety

An understanding of the three nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima respectively and the corrective action thereof may be warranted at this stage of our analysis.

On March 28, 1979, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear accident occurred, due to a partial reactor meltdown in the Unit 2 reactor core, a result of combination of equipment malfunctions, design-related issues, and operator errors. The radioactive release to atmosphere was considered insignificant and not enough to cause public harm. But led to public concern and scrutiny of nuclear power safety contributing to changes in regulation, emergency response procedures. The damaged reactor was permanently shut, and an expensive and elaborate evacuation taken up.

On April 26, 1986, a catastrophic explosion, followed by a fire that burned for days, releasing a large amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the town of Pripyat in northern Ukraine. A combination of a flawed reactor design, operator errors, and inadequate safety measures during a late-night safety test in Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl plant contributed to the disaster. The release of radioactive materials was significant, leading to widespread contamination in the surrounding areas and across Europe. The nearby town of Pripyat was evacuated, and a large exclusion zone was established around the plant to limit human exposure to radiation.

On March 11, 2011, in Japan the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster triggered by a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami occurred. Earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale struck off the north-eastern coast of Japan, generating a powerful tsunami that inundated the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Tsunami damaged the plant’s cooling systems, leading to the overheating of the reactor cores in Units 1, 2, and 3. Subsequently, hydrogen explosions occurred in the reactor buildings. The explosions and overheating caused the release of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and nearby seawater. It was the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster.

The Fukushima disaster prompted a global re-evaluation of nuclear safety standards. Many countries reviewed and strengthened their nuclear safety regulations. It also reignited discussions about the role of nuclear power in the energy mix and the debate over the safety and necessity of nuclear power. Some countries like Germany, Switzerland and Belgium decided to phase out or reduce their reliance on nuclear energy, while others like China, Russia, India, and UAE continued to invest in nuclear power.

How safe are India’s nuclear power plants?

In a thickly populated country like India, the concern for nuclear safety is understandable. India from the very beginning has adhered to stringent nuclear safety norms and has an unblemished record in its largely indigenous efforts to harness nuclear power. Denial of fuel and technology was the greatest source of innovation for India’s nuclear efforts at the same time India is keen to learn from the three accidents and avoid similar situations.

While all the safety features worked in the TMI case and there was insignificant leakage of radiation, at Chernobyl, the accident was due to human error and for not adhering to safety protocols. Moreover, Graphite was used as a moderator in the Chernobyl reactor. Graphite, a form of carbon and its combustible property led to an explosion in the reactor core. Such a scenario is ruled out in Indian reactors as the core is cooled and moderated by heavy water reactors. Fukushima, kind of scenario is ruled out as Indian reactors are not in a geologically high seismic zone, they are built at a height which cannot be affected by any tsunami waves.

A brief History of Nuclear Power in the global context since the first commercial nuclear power stations started operation in the 1950s may be relevant here.

Atom for war

Nuclear fission discovered by German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938. J. Robert Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project in the United States to develop atomic weapons during World War II 1942-45. The first successful test of an atom bomb was done in New Mexico in 1945. Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombarded with atom bombs in 1945.

Atom for power

The program called ‘Atoms for Peace’ was announced by the United States’ President Dwight David Eisenhower in 1953, after the second world war. The birth of atomic power for civilian use experimental breeder reactor EBR-I in Idaho produced electricity in 1951. In 1954 first commercial nuclear power plant, Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, began operation in the Soviet Union. In 1957 the Shippingport Atomic Power Station in the United States became the first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant. In the sixties and seventies of the last century, there was rapid expansion of atomic power for electricity generation.

Nuclear power is generated through a process called nuclear fission, which involves splitting the nucleus of an atom into two smaller nuclei. This process releases a large amount of energy in the form of heat, which is then used to generate electricity. To generate nuclear power, uranium-235 is typically used as the fuel. Uranium-235 atoms are bombarded with neutrons, which causes them to split into two smaller atoms and release more neutrons in the process. These released neutrons can then go on to collide with other uranium-235 atoms, causing them to split as well in a chain reaction. The heat generated by the nuclear fission process is used to boil water and produce steam, which then drives turbines connected to generators. The generators convert the mechanical energy from the turbines into electrical energy that can be used to power homes and businesses.

Growing concern for safety & proliferation

In the 1970s nuclear safety and proliferation became the growing concern of the global community and led to increased regulations and international agreements.  Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1968, entered into force in 1970, now has 190 member states. It requires countries to give up any present or future ambition to build nuclear weapons in return for access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Three main objectives of the treaty are non-proliferation, disarmament, and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology.

India is one of the five countries that did not sign the NPT becoming part of a list that includes Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. India views NPT as discriminatory to the non-nuclear powers and opposed the international treaties aimed at non-proliferation as they were selectively applicable and legitimised the monopoly of the five nuclear weapons powers. Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), a non-legally binding association of 48 major countries dealing with fissile material and possessing nuclear technology, was created in 1974. The bloc combines to prevent nuclear exports for commercial and peaceful purposes from being used to make nuclear weapons. India was for 34 years largely excluded from trade in nuclear plant and materials, which hampered its development of civil nuclear energy until 2009 when the civil nuclear agreement was signed with the US). India has also signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with France, Russia, Namibia, Canada, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Republic of Korea, Czech Republic, Australia, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom. A Memorandum of Understanding on civil nuclear cooperation has also been signed with Mongolia. In December 2015, India and Japan exchanged a Memorandum for peaceful use of atomic energy.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) established in 1957 conducts inspection and safeguards to verify that non-nuclear armed states are not diverting nuclear material for weapon use. Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) not yet entered into force, adopted in 1996 banning nuclear explosions plays significant role in curbing weapon development and testing. There are regional agreements to establish Nuclear Weapons Free Zones (NWFZ) besides United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on countries violating non-proliferation norms and promoting diplomatic solutions.

Status of nuclear power in India

Nuclear energy is the fifth largest source of electricity for India, which contributes about 3% of the total electricity generation in the country. India has over 22 nuclear reactors in 7 power plants across the country that produces 6,780 MW of nuclear power. In addition, one reactor, Kakrapar Atomic Power Project (KAPP-3) has also been connected to the grid in January 2021. 18 reactors are Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) and 4 are Light Water Reactors (LWRs). KAPP-3 is the India’s first 700 MWe unit, and the biggest indigenously developed variant of the PHWR. Government has also allowed Joint Ventures with PSUs to enhance India’s nuclear program, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) is now in two joint ventures with the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC) and the Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL).

The three-stage nuclear energy programme for India was formulated by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s taking into reckoning the limited domestic availability of uranium with a view to secure the country’s long term energy independence, the use of natural uranium and thorium reserves found in the monazite sands of coastal regions of South India. The relevance of the approach gets reinforced by the Russo-Ukrainian war and large-scale energy security concerns in Europe as an aftermath.

The three-stage nuclear power programme aims to multiply the domestically available fissile resource in Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, followed by use of Plutonium obtained from the spent fuel of Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors in Fast Breeder Reactors. Large scale use of Thorium would subsequently follow making use of the Uranium-233 that will be bred in Reactors.  The utilisation of Thorium, as a practically inexhaustible energy source, has been contemplated during the third stage of the Indian Nuclear Programme. As is the case with generation of electricity from Uranium, there will be no emission of greenhouse gases from Thorium also and therefore, it will be a clean source of energy.

  • Stage 1: Use natural Uranium to fuel a Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR). The byproduct, Plutonium (Pu) – 239 is used in Stage 2.
  • Stage 2: Develop Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) to produce excess, Pu-239, which will then lead to the conversion of Thorium (Th – 232) to fissile Uranium U-233.
  • Stage 3: Develop Breeder Reactors, these are Thorium-based nuclear reactors.

It is not possible to build a nuclear reactor using Thorium (Thorium-232) alone due to its physics characteristics. Thorium must be converted to Uranium-233 in a reactor before it can be used as fuel. Development of technologies pertaining to utilisation of thorium has been a part of ongoing activities in Department of Atomic Energy. With sustained efforts over the years, India has gained experience in different areas of Thorium fuel cycle.

The world’s first thorium-based nuclear plant, “Bhavni,” using Uranium-233, is being set up at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu. This plant will be entirely indigenous and will be the first of its kind. The experimental thorium plant “Kamini” already exists
in Kalpakkam.

Efforts are currently on to enlarge the present Thorium related R&D work and activities to a bigger scale and towards development of technologies for the third stage of our nuclear power programme. Safety has been accorded paramount importance in all Thorium technology development studies.

Commercial utilisation of Thorium, on a significant scale can begin only when abundant supplies of either Uranium-233 or Plutonium resources are available. Accordingly, the large-scale introduction and utilization of Thorium in the programme has been contemplated after an adequate inventory of Plutonium becomes available from our Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), comprising the second stage of Indian nuclear power programme. This will be after a few decades of large-scale deployment of FBRs. In preparation for the utilisation of Thorium in Third Stage of India’s Nuclear Power Programme, efforts towards technology development and demonstration are made now – so that a mature technology for Thorium utilisation is available in time.

Land requirement for nuclear power

The land requirement can be an important issue in a thickly populated country; besides the cost of land & compensation, the issue of resettlement must be investigated. The land requirement in case of an SMR nuclear power plant can be 20% of that of a coal-based plant and much lower than the requirements in case of wind or solar plants of equivalent capacity.

Aniruddh Mohan, whose land is it anyway? Energy futures & land use in India, Energy Policy, Volume 110,2017, Pages 257-
262, ISSN 0301-4215, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2017.08.025.
Yi Jin, Paul Behrens, Arnold Tukker, Laura Scherer, Water use of electricity technologies: A global metaanalysis, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume115,2019,109391,ISSN1364-0321,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2019.109391.

Water requirement for nuclear power

The water requirement for nuclear power is similar to that of a coal-based plant of similar capacity.

It’s important to note that both nuclear and coal-based energy have their own set of challenges and environmental impacts. While coal-based waste may be perceived as benign besides a huge quantity of GHG, it may cause local pollution because of the large quantities of heavy metals in ash and suspended particulate matter besides oxides of sulphus and nitrogen. In contrast, the used nuclear fuel produced by the U.S. nuclear energy industry over the last 60 years for example could fit on a football field at a depth of less than 10 yards. That waste has the potential to be reprocessed and recycled.

Cost of nuclear power

OECD electricity generating costs for year 2025 onwards – 10% discount rate, $/MWh.

Projected nuclear LCOE costs for ‘nth-of-a-kind’ plants completed from 2025, $/MWh

At NPCIL, the cost of a nuclear power plant today ranges between Rs 12 crore-Rs 15 crore/MW as against Rs 10 crore/MW in case of coal based plants, the implementation periods are comparable, the nuclear power plants have a longer life comparable to hydro plants. Imported reactors may cost more.

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) may prove to be game changers in the arena of nuclear power. These small reactors can be prefabricated and incrementally deployed, avoiding construction delay in areas with limited line capacity and lines for transmission. These are considered safe – since these work on passive systems relying on physical phenomena like natural circulation, convection, gravity and self-pressurisation. In case of SMRs, the fuel requirement is also less – hence refuelling is required less frequently.

Key issues

Key issues in the progress of nuclear power in India are public opposition, which can be addressed by consultation, engagement, and education of local communities. Technical innovation in reactor design, waste management and safety systems would require investment in Research & Development (R&D) would facilitate indigenous development.

Innovative financing models, reducing time and cost overrun can bring down cost of generation. International collaboration would be the key to entry into the NSG facilitating access to advanced technology and early adoption of thorium technology and reducing the uncertainties for the large investments.

An inter-disciplinary integration of nuclear science, energy, climate, economy, policy, human behaviour, and other natural and social sciences are involved in the optimization of nuclear power development.

Dr. Bibhu Prasad Rath is a highly experienced Additional General Manager with 33 years of experience in the power sector, specializing in Energy, Environment, and Economics, robust foundation in operations, design, procurement, feasibility, policy formulation, investment decisions, and carbon credits. Currently, he is on deputation to Ministry of Power, GOI. He obtained a Ph.D. in Business Administration from Aligarh Muslim University and published numerous papers in various journals and conferences on actionable issues of climate change, sustainability, heartfulness, decision making and leadership.

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