Can nuclear deals clean up our air?
India’s civil nuclear accords may be part of the solution to air pollution problems as it tries to move away from highly-polluting coal, which accounts for almost 80 per cent of its electricity generation, towards a clearer and greener option.
An agreement with the Canadian company Cameco, one of the world’s largest uranium producers, was one of the highlights of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent three-nation visit to Germany, France, and Canada. Cameco will supply 3,000 tonnes of uranium over six years -- enough to power 1,700 megawatts (MW) of India’s 5,780 MW of nuclear-power plants.
A similar agreement was concluded with Uzbekistan in 2013, and India is trying to close a fuel supply agreement with Australia, which has the world’s largest reserves of uranium. These agreements are in addition to those already inked with Russia and Kazakhstan.
Nuclear power accounts for 3.5 per cent of India’s electricity generation and 1.3 per cent of its total energy consumption, but the government has set some ambitious targets. It wants to triple nuclear capacity by 2024 from 4,780 MW in 2014 (5,780 MW now). A more recent and extremely ambitious goal is 63,000 MW by 2031-32.
Nuclear energy does not emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants -major concerns, given the air-quality crisis in Indian cities and the widespread economic effects of local and global climate change.
However, nuclear power comes with potentially catastrophic safety risks, which India hopes to keep under check. Other countries weigh the risks similarly, although Germany intends to close nuclear plants by 2022. China, the biggest user of coal globally and the biggest polluter is also trying to aggressively move to nuclear power. China’s target: 58,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020 and 150,000 MW by 2030. This is a key component of China’s plans to increase the share of non-fossil fuels (excluding coal, oil, gas) from less than 10 per cent now to 15 per cent by 2020 and 20 per cent by 2030.
The problem is with nuclear fuel. Arranging affordable nuclear-fuel supply has been a challenge for India. The nation is currently saddled with 23,000 gas-based power plants, almost idle for want of fuel. Electricity from gas is also 2-3 times costlier than nuclear power, depending on gas prices, a concern in an emerging economy.
Scaling up nuclear energy is a problem. Out of 5,780 MW of nuclear-power capacity that India operates, 3,380 MW generation relies on imported fuel. Domestic uranium supplies are enough only for the remaining 2,400 MW.
Historically, India’s nuclear power programme has been constrained by uranium shortage. The programme started to grow only after the Indo-US nuclear agreement of 2008, which allowed India to import nuclear fuel and ink agreements with fuel suppliers. According to official figures, India has the following agreements:
- With Areva of France for 300 tonnes uranium ore concentrate, inked in 2008.
- With TVEL Corporation, Russia, for 2,000 tonnes of uranium dioxide pellets over five years signed in 2009, 58 tonnes of enriched uranium dioxide pellets also signed in 2009, and 42 tonnes of enriched uranium dioxide pellets signed in 2015.
- With NAC Kazatomprom of Kazakhstan for 2,100 tonnes of uranium ore concentrate over six years, signed in 2009.
- With NMMC of Uzbekistan for 2,000 tonnes of uranium ore concentrate of over five years, signed in 2013.
- With Cameco of Canada for 3,000 tonnes of uranium ore concentrate over six years, signed in 2015.
India has 3,800 MW of nuclear-power capacity under construction and another 43,100 MW is proposed. Of this, 1,000 MW of under-construction capacity and 31,900 MW of proposed nuclear capacity will be built in collaboration with companies from the US, France, and Russia. For these reactors, the contractors must provide fuel throughout a plant’s life, which can last up to 50 years.
For the remaining 14,000 MW of indigenously designed nuclear capacity, India needs to source fuel. Domestic uranium supplies, as we explained, are inadequate. Moreover, domestic uranium also has other uses -- to build nuclear weapons -- and using it only for fuel is not something New Delhi would like to do.