Nuclear Energy: Is it in or out?
Two contrasting news on nuclear energy from two different parts of the world greeted the dawn of the new year. Germany announced the decommissioning of another of its nuclear power plants in keeping with its plan to phase out nuclear energy by 2020. India, on the other hand, announced that its decision to commission a nuclear reactor every year for the next three years. So, is nuclear energy in or out of fashion in current times? The answer to this question lies in understanding the unique energy circumstances of each country, and the choices it can afford to make. There cannot be, and should not be, a one-size-fits-all approach to this subject.
Let us first understand why Germany is phasing out nuclear energy. This is a decision that was taken by the country two months after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, which severely shook public confidence in nuclear safety. Succumbing to the pressure from Green parties, the government announced that all of the 17 nuclear power plants in Germany which were then producing about 22 per cent of the country’s electricity would be phased out by 2022. Over the last nine years, 11 of the 17 plants have been shut down, and Germany is today producing only 13 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy. 30 per cent is being generated from coal-fired plants, and 47 per cent from renewables. To its credit, the country has emerged, over the last decade, as a front runner in the use of renewables for electricity generation. However, several German business and industry leaders continue to argue in favour of nuclear energy for the sake of having a reliable baseload source of electricity. Many are concerned that the loss of nuclear electricity could end up pushing the country towards greater use of coal, thereby increasing its environmental emissions.
The German decision of a nuclear phase-out was, in part, triggered by the anti-nuclear inclinations of the political firmament of the time. But it was also facilitated by several national socio-economic realities. These included a stable population with high per capita energy availability of above 7000 kWh; the country’s surplus electricity market that had been exporting electricity to the tune of about 15 billion kWh; a forecast of as low as 1.1 per cent per annum growth of electricity; the option of making up for the loss of electricity caused by the shutdown of nuclear plants by importing more coal from Poland, more gas from Russia, and even electricity from France and Czechoslovakia. Germany, therefore, has had the luxury of removing the option of nuclear electricity from its energy basket.
Meanwhile, India has indicated its plans to move ahead with its nuclear energy ambitions. The DAE has set a target of 63 GW of installed nuclear power capacity by 2032. In order to meet this objective, the government had approved the indigenous construction of ten new nuclear reactors a couple of years ago. As a part of this continuing effort, three of the new fleet of 700 MWe reactors are to be commissioned; one every year, starting this year. As these become operational, there will be a steady increase in the country’s nuclear power capacity from where it stands at 6780 MWe today. Apart from this indigenous fleet, hopes are also pinned on reactors that are to be built with international cooperation and are at various stages of negotiations. Kudankulam 3 and 4, which are being built with Russian help, will perhaps be the first among the foreign ones to become operational. Negotiations with France and the US have not yet reached the stage of start of construction.
Given that the Indian nuclear reactors have now graduated to 700 MW, is there a need for foreign reactors at all? The answer to this should be yes for two reasons. One, imported nuclear power plants of a capacity higher than 700 MW would help India rapidly meet its electricity requirements. It must be remembered that India still only provides for a per capita electricity consumption of less than 1000kWh (even China is above 4000kWh today), and many areas are still electricity-deficient. Secondly, rapid induction of nuclear energy would help wean India away from coal-fired plants, which still cater for 60 per cent of the country’s electricity, and contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. If the country has to meet its international environment commitments, then the use of coal must reduce. While India is progressing well on the use of renewables, their share having shot up to 16 per cent of the sector. However, it is not enough, by itself, to either meet climate change goals or provide reliable baseload electricity.
Nuclear energy, therefore, will have to remain a part of the country’s electricity mix. Fortunately for India, its nuclear programme is mature and the industry well geared to perform this role. For the future, a three-pronged approach is recommended to move India up the nuclear ladder: the government’s steadfast commitment and support; continued safe operations and rapid induction of reactors by the nuclear operator; and proactive public outreach by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to help understand the focus on nuclear safety, and to ensure that nuclear energy can play a safe role along with, and not versus, other sources of electricity.
India needs every watt it can get from all safe, secure, and sustainable sources.