India is one of the world’s largest energy consumers and currently relies on importing fuels to a significant extent. The major fuel in India’s energy mix is coal 55%, a major portion of which is produced domestically.
Nuclear energy makes up about 3%, and renewable energy sources about 20%. There is a huge gap between energy demand and energy supply in India, due to its rapidly growing economy.
Nevertheless, India plans to maintain economic growth of 8% annually, which implies that electricity demand will grow proportionately. Therefore, more and more reliable power supplies are required, since nearly one-third of India’s population is still not connected to any of the country’s five electricity grids.
Nuclear Power in India:
India embarked on its commercial nuclear power production in 1969 with the commissioning of two boiling water reactors (BWR) of 210 MWc capacities each. Its nuclear power programme was conceived to be a closed fuel cycle, to be achieved in three sequential stages.
These stages feed into each other in such a way that the spent fuel generated from one stage of the cycle is reprocessed and used in the next stage of the cycle to produce power. This kind of closed fuel cycle was designed to breed fuel and to minimise the generation of nuclear waste. The three-stage nuclear power production programme in India had been conceived with the ultimate objective of utilising the country’s vast reserves of thorium-232.
It is important to note that India has the world’s third-largest reserves of thorium. Thorium, however, cannot be used as a fuel in its natural state. It needs to be converted into its usable “fissile” form after a series of reactions. To aid this and to eventually produce nuclear power from its thorium reserves, Dr Homi J Bhabha, who is regarded as the father of the Indian nuclear power programme, envisioned the roadmap of the three-stage nuclear programme.
Relevance of Nuclear Power:
Questions are often raised about why India should continue to invest in nuclear power when even after 50 years of its entry, it contributes only 2-3 per cent to national electricity generation.
A major consideration is about availability of sources. Currently, India draws nearly 63 per cent of its total energy generation from thermal sources. Of this, nearly 55 per cent is met from coal and the rest from gas, with a minuscule amount from oil-fired plants.
The worrisome part of this configuration is that India imports a significant part of its fossil fuels. For a large and rapidly developing country, bulk fuel imports raise economic and strategic vulnerabilities.
Another important factor is electricity generation’s low carbon footprint. The large-scale use of coal has severe consequences for global warming and climate change, which are critical issues besides air pollution that the planet faces today. India’s per capita carbon emissions stand at 1-1.2 tons, compared to 20 tons per capita of the US. If a growing Indian economy continues to rely on coal, carbon emissions are bound to rise. This will impact national expenditure on domestic environmental and health measures, as also India’s global obligations. Nuclear energy, in this context, offers a meaningful alternative.
Renewable energy is environmental-friendly and a natural choice for India. However, its limitations should also be understood.
Firstly, solar and wind energy generation is land-intensive.
Secondly, while nuclear plants have become completely indigenous, solar plants carry a dependence on imported technology and materials such as photovoltaic cells, battery, and storage equipment.
Another solar and wind power generation related handicap is in energy storage, which makes them unsuitable as a baseload source of electricity. Despite these challenges, renewables still merit a place in India’s energy basket.
India is a developing nation and its economy is dominated by the manufacturing and service sectors which are energy-intensive. That India’s power generation capacity has increased a hundred fold since independence, and it is today the third-largest producer of electricity in the world, are applaudable developments. Yet, at 1181 kWh in 2018-19, the per capita electricity consumption is low. This compares poorly with Canada’s 17179 kWh, 13338 kWh in the US, and about 3000 kWh even in China.
India needs to scale up electricity production to assure a reasonable quality of life for citizens. Such requirements make the choice for India, not between nuclear and renewable, but to include all available sources. Given the country’s demographic growth, the aspirations of a young population, lack of indigenous fuel resources, and mounting climate change, we need a long-term vision and commitment to safeguard electricity for the upcoming generation that must be provided with all the resources.