Nuclear electricity: Expensive, Hazardous and Antithetical to equity, India-EU FTA- what ails it and way forward Current Affairs 7th June, 2017

Nuclear electricity: Expensive, Hazardous and Antithetical to equity, India-EU FTA- what ails it and way forward Current Affairs 7th June, 2017

Nuclear electricity: Expensive, Hazardous and Antithetical to equity

Why in news?
The government has recently approved the construction of ten 700 MW Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs).  Even though the PHWRs are expensive, the department of atomic energy persists with them because it lacks the expertise required to build and operate cheaper light-water reactors (LWRs). The imported LWRs are more expensive than the domestically built PHWRs.

India has a flourishing and largely indigenous nuclear power programme and expects to have 14.6 GWe nuclear capacity by 2024 and 63 GWe by 2032. It aims to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050.
The proposed new reactors will amount to 7,000 MWe (megawatt electric), i.e. will more than double the country’s current installed nuclear capacity of 6,780 MWe, a little over 2% of power generated from all sources in the country.

A bad year for nuclear power :

  • Westinghouse, the largest historic builder of nuclear power plants in the world, declared bankruptcy, creating a major financial crisis for its parent company, Toshiba.
  • The French nuclear supplier, Areva, went bankrupt a few months earlier and is now in the midst of a restructuring that will cost French taxpayers about €10 billion.
  • The U.S. Energy Information Administration announced that it expects the share of nuclear electricity in the U.S. to decline from about 20% in 2016 to 11% by 2050.
  • The newly elected Presidents of Korea and France have both promised to cut the share of nuclear energy in their countries.
  • The Swiss have voted to phase out nuclear power.

India and nuclear power:

  • Both Areva and Westinghouse had entered into agreements with the Indian government to develop nuclear plants. Areva had promised to build the world’s largest nuclear complex at Jaitapur (Maharashtra) and Westinghouse would build six reactors at Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh). The collapse of these companies shows that India’s agreements with Areva and Westinghouse were fiscally irresponsible. If these projects had gone ahead we would have left with billions of dollars of debt, and incomplete projects.
  • These reactors are commercially untested, since the largest PHWRs constructed so far in India are the 540 MW twin units at Tarapur.
  • Nuclear electricity is likely to be costly. A rough estimate suggests that the cost of electricity during the first year of operations at these reactors is likely to be around Rs. 6 per unit at current prices. The Central Electricity Regulatory Commission’s published tariffs show that almost all currently operating Indian coal, natural gas and hydroelectric power plants produce cheaper electricity. Even prices for solar power have dropped below those of nuclear power. For example, the winning bid at the auction for the Bhadla Phase-IV Solar Park in Rajasthan held last month was Rs. 2.44 per unit, which is fixed for 25 years.
  • Other sources of electricity have shorter gestation periods.
  • While announcing its decision, the government claimed that these plants would “generate more than 33,400 jobs in direct and indirect employment”. But this number ceases to be impressive when viewed in the context of the planned capital expenditure of Rs. 70,000 crore. The relevant factor in assessing the employment opportunities provided by a project is not just the total number of jobs produced but the ratio of the jobs produced to the capital invested. In contrast, solar photovoltaic sources were more than six times as labour intensive, creating about 0.87 job-years per gigawatt-hour of electricity.
  • Bad fit for climate change. The government also argued that these reactors would bolster “global efforts to combat climate change”. Nuclear power poses its own set of threats to the environment and public health, and is therefore an inappropriate tool to mitigate climate change. All nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste materials because each fission event involving nuclei of uranium or plutonium gives rise to radioactive elements called fission products. Some of these remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Despite decades of research, nuclear waste remains an unavoidable long-term problem for the environment.
  • Nuclear reactors are also capable of catastrophic accidents, as witnessed in Fukushima and Chernobyl. A single nuclear disaster can contaminate large tracts of land with radioactive materials, rendering these areas uninhabitable for decades. More than 30 years after the accident at Chernobyl, about 650,000 acres are still excluded from inhabitation.
  • The people’s concerns. Local communities are keenly aware of the hazardous nature of nuclear power. Since the 1980s, every new site chosen for a nuclear plant has been greeted with a protest movement. The risks and costs are borne overwhelmingly by poor rural communities, who consume only a tiny fraction of the electricity that is generated.
  • The story of nuclear plants in India has been fraught with delays and opacity.

With the changed international scenario for nuclear energy as source of power, and disadvantages of nuclear electricity over other sustainable energy sources like solar, hydro etc. we need to have a comprehensive re-evaluation of the role of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix. The path to sustainable development run through a source of electricity that is expensive and hazardous.

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