South Asians Against Nukes - March 10, 2006

Dont swith over to nuclear power in India

by MV Ramana

(Economic Times - March 10, 2006)

The general assumption underlying the nuclear deal signed by US
President Bush and our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems to be that
nuclear power will be an important component of India's energy future.
This is not a new idea, either in India or elsewhere.

Nuclear energy advocates have always offered extravagant growth
potential, none of which have materialised. This is despite huge budgets
and unstinted government support. There are good reasons not to believe
them again.

Ever since its inception, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has made
numerous confident predictions about nuclear power in India. Going by
those, we should have had 43,500 mw of nuclear power by 2000. Instead we
had a mere 2,720 mw. Attributing this to international sanctions
following the 1974 nuclear test is a dubious excuse, especially given
the DAE's rhetoric of indigenous development.

Currently, nuclear power contributes only 3,310 mw, barely 3% of the
total generation capacity. Prior to the recent deal, the DAE's medium
term plans called for installing 20,000 mw by 2020, which would
constitute only 8-10% of the projected total electrical generation
capacity. Nuclear power, even going by the DAE ambitious projections,
cannot be considered a significant source of electricity.

The DAE asserts that not only that nuclear power would form an important
component of the electricity supply, but it would also be cheap. Even
this claim does not stand up to analysis.

A comparison of the costs of generating electricity at the Kaiga
reactors and the Raichur Thermal Power Station VII -- both plants of
similar size and vintage -- using the standard discounted cash flow
methodology showed that nuclear power would be competitive only with
unrealistic assumptions; for a wide range of realistic parameters, it is
significantly more expensive.

The reason is simple: nuclear reactors cost a lot to build,
substantially more than coal or gas based power plants. This has been
made worse by the DAE -- practically all the nuclear reactors they
constructed have had significant time and cost overruns.

However, even if one assumes that the future will be different and
reactors come up on schedule, the price differential will persist.

This is true elsewhere too. The 2003 Massachusetts Institute of
Technology study on the future of nuclear power recommends an expansion
of nuclear power but admits that nuclear power is today "not an
economically competitive choice".

The only way the study sees nuclear power growing is if the government
offered various subsidies and instituted other favourable policies.

One reason why construction costs cannot be reduced beyond a certain
point is safety: nuclear power alone among all electricity generating
technologies comes with the possibility of catastrophic accidents, such
as the explosion at the Chernobyl reactor 20 years ago.

While reactor safety has improved since Chernobyl, the fundamental
characteristics that make them prone to accidents -- highly interactive
complex systems with parts that are tightly coupled -- remain unchanged.

These characteristics make it hard to foresee all possible accident
modes and plan accordingly. Further, small unexpected events quickly
spin out of control. Therefore with nuclear reactors, major accidents
simply cannot be ruled out.

Practically all the nuclear reactors operated by the DAE have had
accidents of varying severity, as have other facilities associated with
the nuclear fuel chain. Many of these could potentially escalate into a
major accident, as happened at Chernobyl. The impact would be
disastrous, especially in a country like India with a large agricultural
sector.

In the US, private companies considering the construction of nuclear
reactors were concerned that such an accident would likely bankrupt them
and tried to get insurance coverage. No insurance company was willing to
take on the risk of indemnifying against such a huge liability; nor
could they commit to pay beyond their own resources.

The US Congress had to introduce the Price-Anderson Act that allowed the
government to act as the ultimate insurer, offering in essence a subsidy
to the nuclear industry. Such subsidies are not included in the quoted
economic costs of nuclear power.

Fast breeder reactors, which have figured prominently in the recent
debate, pose even greater safety concerns and are even more
uneconomical. Unlike the more common thermal reactors, breeder reactors,
depending on the design details, can actually explode, though with a
yield much smaller than that of a nuclear weapon.

And because they use plutonium based fuel, which is about 30,000 times
more radioactive than uranium-235, the fissile isotope of uranium, the
public health impacts of a full-scale accident are worse.

Breeder reactors use liquid sodium to remove the heat generated. Since
sodium is opaque, burns on contact with air, and reacts violently with
water, breeders are susceptible to serious fires and long shutdowns.
These properties make breeder reactors costly to build and maintain.

The use of plutonium as fuel also means that expensive safety
precautions are required during fuel fabrication. Just the fabrication
cost for plutonium based fuel is many times the total cost of uranium
fuel.

Producing the plutonium through reprocessing spent fuel is also
expensive -- we estimate that each kilogramme of plutonium could cost
about Rs 6.7 million. The PFBR needs about 1,900 kg of plutonium just to
become operational and another 900 kg each year to keep it running.

All of these factors make electricity from breeder reactors
uneconomical. No wonder many countries, especially those that have
privatised their electricity generation such as the UK, have abandoned
breeder programmes.

The DAE argues that we need breeder reactors because our uranium
resources are limited and because we have large deposits of thorium. But
this conclusion is mistaken.

Availability of a resource does not mean that it would be economically
prudent to utilise it. If that were to make sense, then all our
electricity could come from, say, solar photovoltaic cells. But that
would be extremely expensive and uneconomical at the present time.

Similarly the thorium cycle will be uneconomical. Nuclear power is an
expensive, risky and unsustainable way to produce electricity. The deal
with the US does not change this.

(The author is fellow, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in
Environment and Development, ISEC Campus, Bangalore and co-editor of
Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream)

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