nuclear power in India

Nuclear Power in India and the Fight Against Climate Change

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Nuclear power carries with it the ignominy of leading to risks that can be very devastating for health and environment, which can result in vociferous public opposition to the endorsement of nuclear technology, especially in developed economies. In fact public opposition led to the collapse of the Italian government’s plans for a nuclear industry. Germany plans to phase out all of its reactors by 2022, and Belgium is soon to follow. Also, after the Fukushima disaster, Japan had shut down the reactor, but brought it back online fully by October 2015. France, traditionally a fierce advocate of nuclear power, has announced intentions to scale down its nuclear programme. The share of nuclear power in global electricity generation had witnessed a decline from 17 per cent to 11 per cent between 1995 and 2015 (R. Anderson, 2015).

India however, plans to increase its nuclear power capacity to 14.6 GWe by 2024 and to 63 GWe by 2032, and has plans to have 25 per cent of its electricity supply to be supplied by nuclear power by 2050 (World Nuclear Association, WNA, 2016). Until 2009, India’s exclusion from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty due to its nuclear weapons programme that hampered India’s full participation in the global nuclear market also harmed India’s efforts at developing civil nuclear energy. India possesses low reserves of uranium (a nuclear fuel). India during this period has developed a nuclear fuel cycle that can utilize India’s large thorium reserves.

At present, the highest amount of electricity from nuclear energy in terms of installed capacity is present in Tamil Nadu (986.50 MW), followed by Maharashtra (690.14 MW), Rajasthan (573 MW) and Gujarat (559.32 MW) (Ministry of Power, GoI, 2015). India’s energy consumption has grown to more than twice than that of 1990 to 25,000 PJ by 2011 (WNA, 2016). India’s dependence on imported energy sources and the slow pace of reform in the energy sector are hindrances to energy security and access.

One-third of India’s population is not connected to any electricity grid and 19 per cent of the population is without any electricity – with three-quarters of electricity being supplied from coal (WNA, 2016). Coal is plentiful in India and although it is a cheap source of energy, it is also a major contributor to greenhouse gases and overall pollution, other than being a perishable resource. As such, India urgently needs to look for other sources of energy for electricity generation that are cleaner, cost-effective and productive. India also needs to move forward in the long-term from its energy dependency on a perishable energy source.

Nuclear Power and Environmental Effects

Nuclear power as an energy source is a sustainable source of energy, whether it is evaluated from the point of view of impacts on the climate, waste disposal and safety (provided caution is exercised), land use and technology transfers.

First of all, nuclear power plants do not produce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, etc, allowing nations to honour their commitments towards meeting emission targets under the various international conventions and domestic pollution control targets, while generating great amounts of energy at the same time. Nuclear power plants are also a concentrated source of energy production, and lead to judicious land use. The abundance of uranium, the fuel for nuclear power plants, and the extremely high conversion rates allows long-term energy consumption with low amounts of fuel. Nuclear power can also be a cost-effective form of energy production for developing economies, provided that they have access to nuclear technology. These allow nuclear technology to be utilized for the generation of a cost-effective and sustainable form of energy without constantly harming the environment, unlike fossil fuels.

In order to reconcile global energy production with the emission standards required for combating climate change, the global energy system would need to be significantly de-carbonized. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on its part, wants to promote nuclear power as an alternative that can mitigate some of the energy concerns that the need to fight climate change poses. The IAEA’s argument is based on the negligible emissions of greenhouse gases by nuclear power plants, although there are significant other environmental concerns raised by exposure risks to radiation from nuclear power plants. The accidents at the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants are cases in point.

Although there is widespread debate over the exact number of fatalities due to the Chernobyl disaster (1986), among various estimates, a book authored by the scientists A. Yablokov et. al. estimates the death count at about 9,85,000 deaths, mainly due to cancer (K. Grossman, Global Research, 2013). Since the plant was located next to the Pripyat river feeding into a very large reservoir system called the Dneiper reservoir system, the seeping of radioactivity into aquatic systems and into the food chain was devastating, such that 4 sq km of pine forest turned reddish brown and died. Another devastating effect is the bio-accumulation of radioactivity in fish and then in the food chain – effects of which are expected to last for about a 100 years since the accident.

The nuclear meltdown and radioactivity release at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan is another example. The safety precautions exercised by Japanese authorities in its wake led to 37 direct casualties. However, an enormous amount of casualties occurred due to the indirect effects of radioactivity contamination – 1,656 deaths in Fukushima, 434 in Iwate and 879 in Miyagi (Japan Times, 2014). Even though very high standards of safety precautions can be maintained, the devastating environmental and health risks of nuclear safety are incredibly pertinent.

Although the IAEA would argue for the case of nuclear power in the fight against climate change, the application of nuclear power in energy generation can be effective in fighting global warming however, only if there is a significant reduction in the use of energy technologies that produce greenhouse gases. This would require nuclear, renewable and other technologies that have reduced amounts of greenhouse gas emissions to replace sources of energy that produce greenhouse gases such as fossil fuels, which however, come with many applications specific to their properties. It can even be said that without a transition to cleaner energy sources, the large scale shutting down of fossil fuel usage would effectively shut down large parts of the world economy as sources of energy are among the raw materials that power the world economy.

Corner, D. Venables, A. Spence, W. Poortinga, C. Demski and N. Pidgeon in their paper ‘Nuclear Power, Climate Change and Energy Security: Exploring British Public Attitudes’ (2011) talk about how Brits have historically harboured hostile attitudes towards nuclear technology particularly following disasters such as those of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. They talk about how due to social amplification, nuclear technology remains a highly stigmatized technology. Pidgeon et al. report that nuclear power was the least preferred energy source in a 2005 national survey in the UK. A study undertaken by Spence et al. (2010) on climate concerns and support for energy options found that high concern for climate change did not associate with support for nuclear power.

Given the problematic nature of the application of nuclear power, opinion is sharply divided over its applications in providing clean energy. Nuclear waste disposal cannot be adequately satisfactory, and this produces a huge setback for nuclear power as a clean source of energy. Nuclear energy also enjoys the backing of powerful lobbies and is only restricted by proliferation regimes and safety obligations, the negotiation of which could lead to large scale adoption, as in India’s case. In COP21, climate scientists J. Hansen, T. Wigley, K. Caldeira and K. Emanuel argued for a combined strategy that would include all clean and sustainable energy options that included renewable and nuclear power as necessary to meet emission reduction targets. However, a great deal depends on the application of energy sources in the world economy, and how well clean energy sources can substitute the use of polluting energy sources such that a natural equilibrium can eventually be achieved in the Earth’s carbon cycle.

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