A misguided nuclear energy policy
- On March 3, a fire broke out near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine (Europe’s largest) during the course of a military battle.
- Had the fire affected the cooling system, the plant’s power supply, or its spent fuel pool, a major disaster could have occurred.
- These vulnerabilities of reactors and high costs call for India to cancel its nuclear expansion plans.
Example from Japan
- On March 11, 2011, multiple reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered severe accidents after an earthquake and a tsunami.
- Those reactors were quickly “shut down” following the earthquake.
- But their radioactive cores continued producing heat and eventually melted down because the tsunami knocked out the cooling system.
- On December 15, 2021, Indian government informed Parliament that it plans to build “10 indigenous reactors in fleet mode” and had granted “in principle approval” for 28 additional reactors, including 24 to be imported from France, the US and Russia.
- Given the global and national trends in the nuclear industry, the policy seems misguided.
Drawbacks of nuclear energy
- Neither an economical source of electricity nor a viable route to meeting India’s climate goals.
- Nuclear power plants are capital intensive and have suffered major cost overruns.
- Eg. the VC Summer nuclear project in South Carolina (US)- costs rose so sharply that the project was abandoned after an expenditure of over $9 billion.
Renewables- a new era of Energy Security
- In recent times, renewable-energy technologies have become cheaper.
- The cost of electricity from solar photovoltaics and wind turbines in the US declined by 90% and 72%, respectively, between 2009-21.
- In 2020, the International Energy Agency dubbed solar energy the “new king of electricity”.
- This contrast has stymied plans for expanding nuclear power.
- In 2008, the US government projected an expansion of nuclear capacity to 114.9 gigawatts by 2030; in 2021, it predicted that capacity would contract to 83.3 gigawatts.
- This mirrors a global trend: in 1996, 17.5% of the world’s electricity came from nuclear power plants; by 2020, this figure had declined to just around 10%.
- In 2008, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission projected that India would have 650GW of installed capacity by 2050; his successor, Srikumar Banerjee, predicted in 2010 that capacity would reach 35 gigawatts by 2020 which today is only 6.78 GW.
- Targets for rapid expansion of nuclear energy in India were based on the expectation that India would import many light-water reactors after the India-US civil nuclear deal.
- But, the deal has not led to the establishment of a single new nuclear plant, over 13 years after it was concluded.
- Of the 24 foreign reactors with “in principle” approval, six are of the VVER (water-water energetic reactor) design that has had multiple operational problems at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.
- The cumulative load factors for the Kudankulam-1 and two reactors in 2020 were just 53% and 52%, respectively.
- Twelve reactors are proposed to be imported from the US, including at least six AP1000 reactors — the same design that was abandoned in South Carolina.
- Remaining six are of the EPR design that France has been unable to successfully complete in its home country.
- Peoples’ concerns are not based on an irrational fear of nuclear energy.
- In a densely populated country such as India, land is at a premium and emergency health care is far from uniformly available.
- Local citizens understand that a nuclear disaster might leave large swathes of land uninhabitable as in Chernobyl or require a prohibitively expensive clean-up as in Fukushima, where the final costs may eventually exceed $600 billion.
- Concerns about safety have been accentuated by the insistence of multinational nuclear suppliers that they be indemnified of liability for the consequence of any accident in India.
- Under pressure from multinational manufacturers, India’s liability law already largely protects them.
- But the industry objects to the small window of opportunity available for the Indian government to hold them to account.
- Climate change will increase the risk of nuclear reactor accidents.
- The day after the fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, a wildfire approached the Hanul nuclear power plant in South Korea and President Moon Jae-in ordered “all-out efforts” to avoid an accident at the reactors there.
- The frequency of such extreme weather events is likely to increase in the future.
- Therefore, nuclear power is not the right choice to “adapt” to climate change, which requires resilience in power systems.
- It is also not the appropriate choice for mitigating India’s carbon emissions since it cannot be deployed at the necessary scale.
- The resources spent on nuclear plants will yield quicker results if they are redirected to renewables.
- Given the inherent vulnerabilities of nuclear reactors and their high costs, it would be best for the Government to unambiguously cancel its plans for a nuclear expansion.