Is Nuclear Energy the Answer to India’s Growing Energy Needs?

India needs an alternative energy strategy but nuclear energy cannot be its main feature.


India’s  energy sector faces a series of problems today. Bottlenecks in enhancing the supply of domestic coal, displacement caused by large hydroelectric projects, and the limited availability of cleaner fuels, such as natural gas, are a few of them.  In addition, the Global Climate Change Regime, a global framework of climate related agreements, calls upon countries to move to cleaner forms of energy. But several international agreements on climate change were criticised for placing an unfair burden on developing countries, pushing countries like India to come up with cleaner-fuel options, Nuclear energy was one such option as it is the second largest source of low carbon electricity today. However, nuclear power generation is not as clean as it is often made out to be. This is demonstrated in the case of Kudankulam. People have been protesting for decades as they worry that the hot water dispatched from the plant will affect the marine life of the surrounding water sources and subsequently their livelihood. They are also worried about being displaced and other nuclear-related risks such as radiation poisoning.  

Despite continued protest against proposed new plants, such as in Jaitapur, the government is committed to growing India’s nuclear energy capabilities. The programme, which is divided into three stages, was formulated by Homi J Baba in the 1950’s with the aim to utilise India’s thorium reserves which is one of the largest in the world. However, this is not an economically viable option as global uranium prices are much lower. At the beginning of 2018, six nuclear reactors with a combined  capacity of 4.4 GWe were under construction. However, India’s 6,780 MW of nuclear power plants contributed to less than 3% of the country’s electricity generation. The cost of producing nuclear energy is also a huge strain on the government. The energy from the new plants (that cost about ₹15-20 crore per MW to set up) cannot be sold commercially below at least ₹7 a unit. In addition, the cost of establishing a nuclear plant is monumentally high and takes a few decades until completion. 

US support has been one of the major factors that has enabled India’s  nuclear energy programme. India and USA signed a deal in 2008 to cooperate in the area of civil and nuclear energy. A major aspect of the deal was the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), granting  a special waiver to India enabling it to sign cooperation agreements with other  countries like France, Russia and Canada. However, expanding the nuclear industry comes with a heavy price tag including an insurance cover of 15 billion. This has led to many indigenous private insurance companies finding it uneconomical to invest in India’s nuclear projects giving State-run ventures of other countries like those of Russia and France an advantage. 

It is therefore evident that India needs to come up with a durable energy strategy to meet present and future energy demands of its population and industries. However, nuclear energy is not necessarily the best solution; this reading list explains why. 

1) The Development Argument 

For a developing nation committed to industrialisation, India's energy demands have grown. Nuclear energy is therefore advocated to be the facilitator to India’s development aspirations.  An early supporter  of this narrative was Jawaharlal Nehru. To use his words, the idea was to “catch-up as fast as we can with the Industrial Revolution that occurred long ago in western countries.” However, this euro-centric development approach came with a set of dangers as pointed out by Manu V Mathai:

One could still for the sake of argument say that on one possible reading of the so-called ‘right to develop’ argument is that India ought to catch up with the Industrial Revolution of the west. But then, we ought to also remember that the countries that perfected this model of economic growth during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were also the pioneers of forcible enclosure and appropriation of others’ resources. The countries further contributed to the colonisation of vast regions of the world, the externalisation of social and ecological costs and eventually the advent and entrenchment of today’s ecological crises. We also know that the immense and historically unprecedented wealth that it has produced is yet to satisfactorily assuage poverty and disempowerment in those countries.

2) Nuclear Energy and Foreign Policy Nexus

Nuclear energy plays a substantial role in the formation of bilateral relations among nations.  For example, the 2008 Indo-US nuclear agreement did not just support India’s domestic power plants but strengthened Indo-US bilateral relations while giving India the recognition of being a responsible nuclear weapon state with strong non-proliferation credentials. Along these lines, Manu V Mathai argues that realpolitik drives nuclear generation policies of countries that India has fallen prey to: 

Being held hostage to the realpolitik of international relations, nuclear power is rationalised as an important option for long-term energy security to fuel economic growth. High levels of this are an implicit prerequisite for negotiations of power and influence on the world stage. The force with which the Government of India has pushed nuclear power, I believe, derives some of its rationalisation from this implicit dynamic. There is also, quite evidently, the more obvious and widely discussed entrenchment of nuclear weapons in geopolitics.

Shankar Sharma counters the argument made by pro-nuclear advocates. Pro-nuclear advocates believe nuclear power is a good option against global warming since the operation of a nuclear reactor does not contribute much to the emission of greenhouse gases. Sharma responds by stating the example of Japan:

It is generally considered impossible to contain global warming through a particular power generation technology alone without significantly reducing overall energy consumption levels worldwide.The assumption that the adoption of nuclear power makes sense as a strategy to lower aggregate carbon emissions is also flawed. Japanese nuclear chemist, has showed that between 1965 and 1995 Japan’s nuclear power plant capacity went from zero to more than 40,000 MW. During the same period, its CO2 emissions increased from about 400 million tonnes to about 1,200 million tonnes.

3) The ‘Nuclear Renaissance’

In the early 2000’s, experts believed that the growing cost of fossil fuels and the aim of countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a revival in nuclear energy leading to what they termed as a ‘nuclear renaissance’. However according to Praful Bidwai argues that, rather than a renaissance in the making, nuclear power generation is on a decline. He says:

India’s super-ambitious nuclear expansion plans are based on the rosy assumption that a global ‘nuclear renaissance’ is under way and that nuclear power is the best solution both to the climate change crisis and to the national energy security question. But there is no nuclear renaissance. Nuclear power is in decline worldwide. Nuclear power generation peaked in 2006 and is now annually falling by 2%. The number of operating reactors has declined from 444 in 2002 to 438 in 2009. A major reason for this is that nuclear power is unpopular and reactors are seen as bad neighbours.

4) The Negatives Outweigh the Positives 

Production and maintenance of nuclear power generators comes with a long list of problems. After incidents such as Chernobyl and  the Fukushima disaster, countries such as Germany began to undergo a “nuclear phase out” shutting down their nuclear energy units. Praful Bidwai  discusses some of the negatives that come with nuclear power generation.

Nuclear power generation is ineluctably fraught with ionising radiation, an invisible, intangible and insidious poison, which is unsafe in all doses, however small. Radiation causes cancers and genetic damage, for which there is no cure, antidote or remedy. Nuclear plants expose not just occupational workers, but also the general public, to radioactive hazards in numerous ways. Radioactive wastes of different intensity or level are produced in all stages of the so-called nuclear fuel cycle. Humankind has found no way of safely storing or disposing of nuclear waste. It remains dangerously radioactive and hazardous literally for thousands of years.

Vigilance is also a big factor in preventing nuclear disasters and can ensure prevention of the many aforementioned negatives. However, Manu V Mathai states that India does not have the required mechanisms in place to ensure a high degree of vigilance. 

We know that the connections between radiation and public health are complex and scientists struggle to furnish results that are beyond debate. It has been understood, especially by early proponents that the safe operation of nuclear power demands “eternal vigilance”. Yet human institutions, even in relatively regimented social milieus such as Japan, have fallen short on this score. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether the “argumentative” and far more spontaneous attitude that populates the Indian milieu is a suitable contender to deliver such vigilance. The absence of transparency and instances of incompetence (e g, the collapse during construction of a part of the inner containment dome at Kaiga unit one) that afflicts the atomic energy establishment serve to further erode confidence in nuclear power.

5) Nuclear trade 

Shankar Sharma points out that trade in nuclear materials, technical infrastructure and know-how is not immune to the unfair monopolies generated under a neo-liberal system. Some countries prosper due to trade while others are left behind entirely having to face the burden of huge costs and risks. 

Since only a few countries have uranium reserves, it would need a massive transfer of nuclear fuel and nuclear power technology across the globe to be able to provide an important role for nuclear power in the global electricity basket. Under such a scenario, it is not difficult to imagine the massive financial benefits that will accrue to a few countries and corporations from such gigantic transactions, while the huge costs and risks will be borne by communities.

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