top of page

Is Nuclear Energy the answer to India's Energy Needs?


Nuclear Energy
Nuclear Energy, the answer to India's Energy Needs

If you are interested in applying to GGI's Impact Fellowship program, you can access our application link here.

 

1. Introduction


While the entire world moves towards clean energy and sustainable growth, naturally, it becomes imperative for India to keep up with the sentiment and demonstrate a forward and progressive energy mix in the country. As per the India Energy Outlook report 2021, India is a major force in the global energy economy. Energy consumption has more than doubled since 2000, propelled upwards by a growing population – soon to be the world’s largest – and a period of rapid economic growth. Near‐universal household access to electricity was achieved in 2019, meaning that over 900 million citizens have gained an electrical connection in less than two decades (India energy outlook 2021 Report).


Since 2000, India has been responsible for more than 10% of the increase in global energy demand. On a per capita basis, energy demand in India has grown by more than 60% since 2000, although there are widespread differences across different parts of the country as well as across socio‐economic groups (India energy outlook 2021 Report). There is huge potential for further growth in energy service demand in India due to an expanding economy and the forces of urbanization and industrialisation. There are, however, critical questions about how demand growth will be met. With the notable exceptions of solar, coal and wind, India is generally resource‐constrained.


With India’s commitment to the ambitious target of becoming a net-zero emissions economy by 2070, it becomes imperative to chart out and set India on an alternate path of energy sustainability and sufficiency.


2. Context


India's energy mix is predominantly dependent on fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, which account for about 57% of the country's energy consumption. The state-owned Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCI) operates five different but interconnected electricity grids - Northern, Eastern, North-Eastern, Southern, and Western - covering over 95,000 circuit km of transmission lines, except for the Southern grid, which is not connected. In July 2012, the Northern grid failed, causing a power outage affecting more than 600 million people across 22 states, and the following day, parts of two other grids also failed. Transmission and distribution (T&D) losses have been a persistent problem in India, with estimates of losses exceeding $6 billion per year as per a 2007 KPMG report and $12.6 billion per year in a 2012 report. The 2010 estimate shows a national average of 27% T&D loss, well above the target set in 2001 when the average figure was 34%, with a significant portion attributed to theft. The installed transmission capacity is only about 13% of generation capacity.


Parallel with concerns regarding climate change, India's pressing priority remains economic growth and poverty alleviation. When the government refused to set targets ahead of the 21st Conference on Climate Change in Paris, 2015, it appeared as though Reducing CO2 emissions was not a high priority.


In September 2014, the environment minister stated that it would be at least 30 years before India could expect a decrease in CO2 emissions. However, in November 2022, India's Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change issued a revised long-term low-carbon development strategy, including plans to triple nuclear power capacity by 2032.



3. WHY NUCLEAR ENERGY ?


Currently, nuclear energy contributes to only 1.7% of India's energy mix, but the government aims to double its usage by 2030. This paper supports the adoption of nuclear energy on the following grounds:


3.1 Indian foreign policy advocates the use of nuclear energy.


Becoming a member of NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) is critical for India to exponentially improve its nuclear program and trade in nuclear energy and technology . With these twin goals in mind, increasing nuclear energy adoption becomes essential. India's largely indigenous nuclear power program is committed to growing its nuclear power capacity, with ambitious targets set by the government.


Despite being outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty due to its weapons program, India has been developing a nuclear fuel cycle to utilize its thorium reserves. However, a fundamental incongruence between India's civil liability law and international conventions has limited foreign technology provision.


3.2 Nuclear energy is a source of clean energy.


Nuclear energy is a zero-emission energy source that generates power through the process of splitting of atoms. Nuclear fuel is dense, and the waste produced can be recycled and reprocessed.


3.3 Energy Self Sufficiency.


Energy self-sufficiency is a major driver for new and renewable energy and India aspires to be energy independent by 2047. The increasing cost of power generation due to increasing coal prices, poor performance of state electricity boards calls for a shift towards clean energy. The need for environmental sustainability and more equitable contribution of different sources to the energy mix require transformation within the sector.



4. HOW TO SCALE UP NUCLEAR ENERGY


While Uranium is predominantly believed to be the only viable option to generate nuclear energy at scale, there are other alternatives, which haven't been explored as much. Thorium, in particular, is an extremely promising alternative. Historically, the idea of using thorium as a nuclear fuel was abandoned because the primary objective of nuclear power was tied closely with military research, which required uranium and plutonium to create atomic bombs. However, thorium could offer significant advantages for power generation, and many countries are investing and exploring this element. Molten salt reactors, one of the new generation designs, could potentially harness thorium as a fuel. These reactors use a mixture of hot molten salts as both the reactor coolant and fuel can go up to very high temperatures, ultimately increasing the efficiency of electricity production.


One of the biggest limitations in using nuclear energy is that the majority of reactors worldwide run on Uranium, which presents a range of issues. Firstly, only 1% of the Uranium on Earth is fissile Uranium (U235), making it a scarce resource. Additionally, the fission of U235 generates highly radioactive waste, including plutonium that is used in atomic bombs, which must be handled and stored safely for long durations.


However, Thorium (Th-232) is emerging as a promising alternative for nuclear power generation. It can easily absorb neutrons and transform into Th-233, which emits an electron and antineutrino to become protactinium-233 (Pa-233). This isotope further transforms into U233, which is an excellent fissile material. In fact, the fission of a U233 nucleus produces approximately the same amount of energy i.e. 200 MeV (Maximum extractable Value) as U235.



5. CASE STUDY


Although Nuclear Energy’s share in India’s energy mix is minimal, there are other countries, like France and South Korea that have a large part of their energy needs met with nuclear energy.


5.1 France


As of 2021, France’s energy mix consisted of 68% Nuclear Energy whereas India in the same year is only able to contribute around 3% of its total energy production via nuclear energy.


X AXIS : Time in Years, Y AXIS : Total nuclear energy production in millions (Source : Gap Minder)


The graph presented shows that India has been steadily but nominally increasing its use of nuclear energy while France had a significant uptake in nuclear energy production starting from 1975. France's decision to develop a large nuclear energy program was a result of the ‘oil shock’ events in the Middle East in 1973, which increased the price of oil by four-folds. France, with limited natural energy resources, had to rely heavily on oil-burning plants for electricity generation. To achieve energy independence, French policy makers saw nuclear energy as the only viable option due to its compactness and efficiency.


5.1.1 Political intent and support : Political intent and support played a pivotal role in France's nuclear expansion. The Messer Plan, which came into being after the oil shocks, aimed to replace all sources of energy with electricity that is generated from nuclear power. France's publicly owned electricity supply system, subject to direct political control, made it relatively easy to implement the plan through executive fiat. The first plants were built in just six years. (The 1970s French experience with nuclear power, Professor John Quiggin, VC Senior Research Fellow)


Public opinion also favoured the expansion of nuclear energy. For a majority of French people, the nuclear sector is seen as an asset for the country's energy independence, a public opinion poll conducted by research and consulting firm BVA on behalf of Orano has found. The survey also found 53% of French people consider that nuclear power is essential for the country's energy independence.


5.1.2 Technology Investments : France has consistently been investing heavily in technology to optimize its nuclear energy program and maximize efficiency. President Macron described French nuclear regulators as “unequalled” in their rigor and professionalism and that the decision to build new nuclear power plants was a “choice of progress, a choice of confidence in science and technology”.


5.1.3 Recycling : The strength of France’s national spent fuel policy, in addition to tight legislation and a strong regulatory body, can be accredited to the standardization of its nuclear plants and processes and the policy of recycling its spent fuel. This leads to an efficient and secure supply, and reduced radioactive waste burden.

“The recycling of spent fuel is a major element of the strategy of the French nuclear sector, which has more than 30 years of industrial experience. This makes it possible to limit the volume of materials and to minimize waste, while conditioning it in a safe way. This strategy, which is an important pillar of France’s overall nuclear electricity production, makes a significant contribution to the country’s energy independence”, Denis Lépée, Senior Vice President and Head of the Nuclear Fuel Division at EDF.


5.2 India


India, on the other hand, has not been able to increase its nuclear energy footprint. There are multiple factors that have contributed to a slowed nuclear progression, some of them are as follows:


5.2.1 Development Needs : India's progress in nuclear energy has been slow compared to other countries. Several factors have contributed to this, including the country's utmost priority being economic growth and poverty reduction. As a result, coal has been the primary source of energy in India, and reducing CO2 emissions has not been actioned appropriately. Owning to goals of economic development, India has not been able to explore or better manage its energy mix. In fact, India declined to set targets ahead of the 21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change in Paris in 2015. The environment minister at the time stated that it would take 30 years for India to see a decrease in CO2 emissions. However, in November 2022, India's Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change issued a revised long-term low-carbon development strategy, which includes aims to triple nuclear power capacity by 2032.


5.2.2 Technology : India's civil nuclear strategy targets to achieve self-sufficiency in the nuclear fuel cycle. This is a result of India being excluded from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), due to its nuclear weapons capability. Only countries that had such capability before 1970 were accorded the status of Nuclear Weapons States under the NPT. India's self-sufficiency in the nuclear fuel cycle begins from uranium exploration and mining through fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design and construction, all the way to reprocessing used fuel and waste management. However, this exclusion from NPT and NSG left India out of the global nuclear commerce network, which slowed down its nuclear energy expansion. To make up for lack of access to technology and knowledge being traded amongst signatory countries, India intensified its efforts towards self-reliance while continuing to maintain a small nuclear deterrent and pursuing peaceful nuclear power generation.


5.2.3 Safety and Regulatory Concerns : Environmental watchdogs have expressed concerns over the safety standards implemented by the nuclear establishment in India. In the last decade, there have been reports of radiation-related fatalities in hospitals near major nuclear power plants. This has led to a lack of trust in Indian regulatory and safety measures, which is a major obstacle to expanding nuclear energy. As a result, public opposition to nuclear energy is another factor hindering India's ability to scale up its nuclear energy footprint. Environmentalists, NGOs, and other groups have organized numerous protests and demonstrations to restrict or prevent the expansion of nuclear energy.



6. Recommendations


Although there is no straightforward solution to address the factors hindering India's nuclear energy program, there are a few measures that can potentially enhance India's nuclear energy situation.


6.1 Sensitization : While there exist inherent problems and threats with nuclear energy, there needs to be an education/sensitization drive to make a case for nuclear energy and ensure improvement in public reception of nuclear energy . Recent efforts to site nuclear facilities such as the Jaitapur nuclear `energy park’ in the state of Maharashtra have been met with underwhelming support, which suggests that the Indian public is also aware of the potential risks posed by the technology. Public support is necessary because it will help champion the cause and lead to easier decision making as well. When France adopted its nuclear energy policy, there were consistent widespread efforts to build consensus and improve the reception of nuclear energy. The French authorities have worked towards getting people to understand the benefits of nuclear energy as well as the risks associated with it. Glossy television advertising campaigns reinforced the link between nuclear power and the electricity that makes modern life possible.


Nuclear plants solicit the French Public to take tours--an offer that six million French people have taken up. Today, nuclear energy is a common thing in France. The slogan “no oil, no gas, no coal, no choice” is a popular response for increased nuclear energy in France. Owing to these educational drives and the government’s intention to build consensus, there is widespread support for nuclear energy. The French perceive nuclear energy as an energy for the future and an integral part of their energy mix. More than half of French people (54%) believe that the use of nuclear energy will remain stable or increase in France.

Similar widespread messaging about the advantages of nuclear energy can help increase public support in India as well.


6.2 Public Private Partnership : The aforementioned case highlights that France has complete autonomy over its nuclear facilities, enabling it to make swift decisions and have full control over its nuclear program. Nevertheless, the fixed costs associated with building nuclear energy capacity are significant, which has been a major obstacle for India in expanding its nuclear energy program given its competing development objectives. Introducing a public-private partnership (PPP) model for nuclear energy could alleviate this burden and attract more players to the market.


6.3 Thorium Based Research : India is home to 25% of the world’s thorium but most of our nuclear energy generation is still via Uranium. With tremendous potential within our belt, India should expand its Thorium nuclear capacity because it's also a better choice for the environment.

6.4 Trade of Knowledge and Materials : While the NPT excludes India from the benefits of trade of knowledge and material, there have been some favorable changes. With US’s recognition and efforts towards Civil Nuclear Cooperation with India paves the way for India to arrive at similar consensus with other countries as well. The Agreement would help curb technology practices against India that have been in place for more than 3 decades and it would bring an end to India’s nuclear isolation. It will pave the way for India to have civil nuclear cooperation as an equal partner with the USA and the rest of the world. This will significantly help India gain access to resources and knowledge sharing.

6.5 Autonomous Regulatory Body : Currently, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) serves as India's regulatory body for nuclear energy. However, establishing an independent regulatory body could potentially increase public trust in the nuclear program and also facilitate private sector participation. CAG 2012 Report cited that AERB failed to prepare a nuclear and radiation safety policy for the country in spite of a specific mandate in its Constitution Order of 1983. The absence of such a policy at a macro-level can hamper micro-level planning of radiation safety in the country. The report also mentions that as of 2012, despite having the opportunity of peer review by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the AERB has not accepted the opportunity to get its regulatory framework and effectiveness reviewed by them. This calls for the need of an autonomous regulatory body that will also further the cause of public consensus.


7. CONCLUSION


In summary, the use of nuclear energy has been a topic of discussion for many years due to its potential as a sustainable energy source and concerns over safety and environmental impact. Despite the challenges faced by India, such as competing development priorities and a lack of a supportive ecosystem for nuclear energy, there is still great potential for the expansion and development of nuclear energy. The use of thorium can play a vital role in this expansion. Additionally, improving regulatory practices and creating a more conducive environment can help India increase its nuclear energy capacity in the future.



Meet The Thought Leader



Laboni Singh is a mentor at GGI and is currently working at The Bridgespan Group as an Associate Consultant. She takes keen interest in socioeconomic development issues, public policy, and equity across different vectors of gender, caste, class, and ability, which in turn fuelled her transition from working at a global bank to the social sector. She is an Urban Fellow from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore and has a bachelor's degree in Economics from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi.


Meet The Authors (GGI Fellows)



Tanesha holds an undergrad degree in Economics from Christ University. After completing her degree in 2021, she worked with Zomato as a growth manager for 2 years, where she directly impacted and helped 200+ restaurants via growth consulting. Currently she is associated with Sucseed Ventures, in the early-stage VC Space. Her interests lie in energy sector, finance, trade and foreign policy.






If you are interested in applying to GGI's Impact Fellowship program, you can access our application link here.

 

References


5."The 1970s French experience with nuclear power”, Professor John Quiggin, VC Senior Research Fellow

65 views0 comments

Comentários


bottom of page