India’s Civilian Nuclear Energy Sector

NOV 18

Mains   > Science and Technology   >   Energy   >   Nuclear energy

IN NEWS:

  • Recently, India announced its long-term strategy to transition to a “low emissions” pathway at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP 27) ongoing in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which is premised on expanding its nuclear power capacity by at least three-fold in the next decade.

HISTORY:

  • Shortly after India’s independence, Homi J Bhaba convinced the then-PM Jawaharlal Nehru to invest in nuclear energy. Hence, Atomic Energy Act of 1948 was created to lay the foundation for India’s nuclear programmes.
  • Serious developments began with the establishment of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay in 1954.
  • In 1955, Canada agreed to provide India with a nuclear reactor. The ‘Canada India Reactor Utility Services (CIRUS)’ went critical in July 1960.
  • However, frequent conflicts with the neighbors and the formation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) led India to focus on military application of nuclear energy.

 

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

  • The NPT is an international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology, promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. It divided the world into Nuclear Weapon states (those that have built and tested a nuclear explosive device before 1 January 1967) and non-Nuclear Weapon states. India, Israel, and Pakistan have never accepted the NPT.

 

  • As a result, in 1974, under the Indira Gandhi government, India conducted its first nuclear bomb test, nicknamed Smiling Buddha, at Pokhran Test range in Rajasthan.
  • The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was formed in reaction to the Indian tests to check international nuclear proliferation. Also, Canada pulled its support for the Indian nuclear program and the United States imposed sanctions.

Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)

  • The NSG is a multilateral export control regime and a group of nuclear supplier countries that seek to prevent nuclear proliferation by controlling the export of materials, equipment and technology that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

 

  • Despite these challenges, BARC managed to construct its biggest nuclear plant to date—the Dhruva reactor—at Trombay in 1977.
  • During the 1990s, India faced renewed international pressure with the advent of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which sought to put an end to all nuclear explosions.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)

  • The CTBT is the treaty banning all nuclear explosions - everywhere, by everyone. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and opened for signature in 1996. But it has not entered into force, as eight specific nations (China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and the United States) have not ratified the treaty.

 

  • In 1998, India conducted its second nuclear bomb test called Operation Shakti at Pokhran. In the aftermath, India faced economic sanctions.
  • A turning point in U.S.-India relations occurred when plans for negotiating a U.S.-India nuclear cooperation agreement were unveiled in July 2005. This agreement, and the subsequent endorsement of India's case by the NSG, enabled India to engage in international nuclear trade.
  • In 2009, a safeguards agreement for select civilian nuclear facilities was concluded between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

PRESENT STATUS:

  • Nuclear power is the fifth-largest source of electricity in India after coal, renewables, natural gas and hydroelectricity.

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  • Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is responsible for design, construction, commissioning and operation of nuclear power reactors.
  • NPCIL presently operates 22 commercial nuclear power reactors with an installed capacity of 6780 MW. 7 more reactors are under construction with a combined generation capacity of 4,300 MW.

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  • BHAVINI, another PSU of the DAE, implements the Fast Breeder Reactors programme at the Madras Atomic Power Station in Kalpakkam, Tamilnadu.  ?

THREE-STAGE NUCLEAR PROGRAMME:

  • India's three-stage closed fuel cycle nuclear power programme was formulated by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s to secure the country's long-term energy independence.
  • Its long-term objective is to utilise the abundant thorium reserves found in the monazite sands of India’s coastal regions.
  • Stages:
    • In the first stage of the programme, natural uranium-fueled pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) produce electricity while generating plutonium-239 as by-product.
    • The second stage would see the setting up of fast breeder reactors (FBRs). These FBRs would use a mixture of Plutonium and reprocessed spent Uranium from the first stage, to produce energy and more Plutonium (hence the name ‘breeder’).
    • After 3-4 decades of operation, the FBRs would have produced enough Plutonium for use in the ‘third stage’. In the third stage, thorium is used along with plutonium for power generation.

WHY INDIA NEEDS NUCLEAR POWER:

  • To address energy poverty:
    • Although India is the third largest producer of electricity in the world behind the US and China, it continues to remain energy-poor. In 2018-19, India's per capita power consumption was 1181 kWh as against the world average at 3,260 kWh.
  • Meet rising demand:
    • According to the Economic Survey 2019-2020, India needs to quadruple electricity production to assure a reasonable quality of life to citizens. Such exponential growth can be achieved only through development of nuclear power.
  • Low carbon footprint:
    • Nuclear power plants are among the few large-scale, carbon-free electricity source that India can rely to produce large amounts of electricity while meeting its INDC commitments and achieving its target to become a net zero emitter by 2070.
  • Depleting reserves:
    • Nearly 61% of India’s energy requirements is met from coal and natural gas. However, their reserves are fast depleting. Here, nuclear energy offers an alternative source.
  • Reduce import dependency:
    • For a large and rapidly developing country, bulk fuel imports raise economic and strategic vulnerabilities.
    • Alternate sources like solar plants carry a dependence on imported technology and materials such as photovoltaic cells and storage equipments.
    • Developing indigenous nuclear capabilities can greatly reduce the import bills and reduce strategic vulnerabilities.
  • Reliable Year-round power:
    • Nuclear power plants operate at much higher capacity than renewable or conventional energy sources. For example: In 2018, one of the reactor unit in Kaiga set a new world record for 941 days of continuous operation.
  • Cost effective:
    • Nuclear technology has developed to such extend that most of the spent fuel can be recycled or stored safely for decades. In the long run, this makes nuclear energy economically competitive with alternate sources of energy.
  • Land requirement:
    • A nuclear energy facility has a small area footprint. For instance, Asia’s largest solar park in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh is spread over 1590 hectares and will produce 750 MWe. In comparison, Kakrapar occupies only 959 hectares, which includes 500 hectares of green belt and 200 hectares of township but produces 1140 MWe.

INDIA’S FUTURE POTENTIAL:

  • Growing demand for power:
    • The growing economy and rising population mean that the demand for power in India will not subdue in the near future. This makes India’s energy sector an attractive market to investors. 
  • Indigenous capacity:
    • India has developed indigenous capabilities in the construction and operation of nuclear reactors. India also has more than 40 years of experience in spent fuel reprocessing technology, vital for the success of the three-stage programme.
  • Availability of raw materials:
    • India has an abundance of Throium in its beach sand. Also, uranium supply within India were boosted by the opening of the Tummalapalle uranium mine in Andhra Pradesh.
    • India also has uranium supply agreements with various countries such as Russia, France and Kazakhstan to import the majority of its uranium needs.

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  • Favourable government policies:
    • The government is favourable towards developing nuclear power. This is evident from the government’s announcement to hike India's nuclear power capacity to 22,480 MW by 2031.
  • Push for sustainable development:
    • India has become a global frontrunner in encouraging reduction of carbon emission and promoting cleaner sources of fuel. India has also announced 2070 as the target year for carbon neutrality. This will be favourable for nuclear power.
  • International support:
    • India has a credible track record of being a responsible nuclear power. Hence, despite being a non-signatory to the NPT, foreign countries continue to extend support to India’s civilian nuclear sector.

CHALLENGES:

  • Slow progress:
    • Seventy years down the line, India’s three stage reactor programme is still stuck in the first stage. The Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) of 500 MW at Kalpakkam is yet to come on stream.
  • Global aversion to nuclear power:
    • Following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, several countries have decided to phase move away from nuclear power. Eg: Germany pledged to close all its reactors by the end of 2022. This aversion is a major challenge to developments in nuclear power.
  • Potential risks:
    • India’s new nuclear plants seek to import expensive and untested AP 1000s reactors that are not in commercial operation anywhere around the world yet.
    • Also, they are located in coastal regions which are often heavily populated and are getting increasingly vulnerable to global warming-induced natural disasters.
  • Shortage of uranium:
    • India's uranium resources are modest, with 183,600 tonnes of uranium as identified resources in situ. With stage 3 nowhere near development, India has to rely on imports to meet its needs for a foreseeable future.  
  • NPT-NSG hurdle:
    • As India is not a signatory of NPT and NSG, some willing nations are been unable to supply India with nuclear fuel.
    • For instance, Namibia, being a part of the Pelindaba Treaty (also known as the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty, ANWFZT), is barred from supplying uranium to a non-NPT signatory.
  • Risky investment:
    • Nuclear power has the energy sector’s highest capital intensity and longest plant-construction time frame, making it hardly attractive for private investors.
  • Delays in completion:
    • Plant construction time frame in India, including licensing and approval, averages almost a decade. Delays leads to cost overruns, making them economically unviable. This discourages lenders to sanction long term loans to investors.
  • Public perception:
    • Nuclear energy is a continuing political problem. There has been significant opposition to the government plans to set up nuclear plants. New sites, such as Jaitpur (Maharashtra), Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh), Mithi Virdi (Gujarat) and Haripur (West Bengal) continue to witness people’s protests.

WAY FORWARD:

  • Multi-pronged approach:
    • While Nuclear power has its significance in sustainable development, it is not the only answer to the world-scale threat of global warming. Renewables have their place. Hence, India’s energy strategy needs a long-term vision and commitment to safe generation of electricity that must include all sources. 
  • Seek new partners:
    • Rather than attempting to secure membership in the NSG, India’s diplomatic and political capital may be better spent in securing a bilateral civil nuclear deal with new partners.
  • Export technology:
    • India should look into encouraging its industry to export its tested and reliable midsize reactor model, which is better suited for the developing countries.
  • Public outreach:
    • India should undertake public outreach efforts that would assuage concerns of the people.
  • Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill:
    • The bill, which seeks to strengthen the functional independence of the country’s atomic regulator and give it the necessary statutory backing has been pending for long in the parliament. The government should enact the bill, so as to strengthen India’s nuclear security credentials.

The growing concerns around nuclear safety and security have pushed developed countries away from their long dependence on nuclear energy. However, this is not a choice for developing countries like India, given its growing energy requirements and persistent development challenges. Therefore, priority should be accorded to the continued development of nuclear energy with utmost consideration for safety.

 

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. India’s transition towards affordable, cleaner and reliable energy is impossible without nuclear power. Critically examine?