Millennium Post

More action, less words

Soon after Japan’s ‘yes-no, yes-no and let’s-see, let’s-see’ response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to strike a nuclear cooperation deal during his first visit of the country came a firm assurance from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott of uranium and other nuclear supplies by way of inking a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement during the latter’s Delhi trip. What does the so- called cooperation agreements with the 46-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) constituents mean to India and its resolve to substantially raise the share of nuclear power to meet its present and future demand-supply gap, especially given the limitation of substantial expansion of coal-fired electricity generation and its ecological impact? Will such agreements by themselves ensure execution of the country’s ambitious nuclear power generation programme? India produces and supplies only around 29,665 gigawatt-hours of nuclear electricity out of its total 20 atomic reactors as against neighbouring China’s 92,652 gigawatt-hours from 17 operating reactors?

The question is pertinent since the previous UPA government failed to set up even a single atomic power plant in five years after it signed the controversial Indo-US civil nuclear co-operation agreement in 2009. Seven new sites were identified. Barring the one in Gujarat, no other could be accessed till today because of objections from both powerful NGOs and state governments. Even the Gujarat plant’s progress has been handicapped by the lack of clarity of the nuclear liability clause.

Can Mr. Modi untie these complex socio-political knots to take possession of the land and erect boundary walls before proceeding with the next phase if he is seriously looking forward to inaugurate any of the proposed new atomic power plants before the next parliamentary election? The question is also pertinent considering the fact the country’s nuclear power programme, which started nearly 50 years ago, progressed at a snail’s pace and fell far behind those initiated by contemporary players in Asia and elsewhere. Also, to what extent India’s nuclear power programme is dependent on cooperation agreements with each of the NSG members, including China?

Today, the world recognizes India’s indigenous nuclear capability and, to an extent, is concerned about the country’s scientific vision to make India a world leader in nuclear technology following its break-through research and proven expertise in fast breeder reactors and thorium fuel cycle. India can easily become a global leader and exporter of this technology. What made the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh-led UPA government dump the idea of using the abundant indigenous thorium supply and well-tested technology to go for the uranium fuel cycle and western technology? India hardly has much uranium to talk about. Hence, Australia’s uranium supply agreement may seem to be vital to India’s future nuclear power generation programme. Prime Minister Abbott was nice to suggest that India should become part of the NSG as its 47th member. But, that’s unlikely to change the ground reality and hurdles to India’s nuclear energy generation programme unless the prime minister is able to take a firm step to make new atomic power projects happen by calling all stops to prevent local power politics over those vital power projects.

India has miserably failed in the area of even conventional coal-based power generation, which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the total electricity supply due to politics and corruption involving powerful politicians, bureaucrats, private entrepreneurs and even  judiciary, which seems to be less concerned about the import of widespread power shortage on economy than legal aspects of government allotments. Sitting over a pile of over 60 billion tonnes of coal reserves, India mines less than 700 million tonnes annually forcing import of some 200 million tonnes of coal to support its poor, under-capacity power programmes. Coal import is set to increase in the coming years.

Compare this with China, which consumed nearly 4 billion tonnes of coal last year, for energy generation alone. Ironically, most private coal block allotments under the UPA regime were for manufacturing sponge iron and not electricity. It was another matter that many politically favoured allottees chose to resale or sub-lease those blocks at much higher prices to make fast bucks.
All said and done, India’s coal reserves and coal quality are not good enough to fully sustain its electricity needs by 2050. At China’s rate of consumption, India’s coal reserves are good for only about 15 years after which the country will be destined to live in darkness unless it finds alternate sources of energy that will ensure the country’s energy security on a 24X7-for-365-days basis.

Non-conventional energies such as wind power, solar power, bio-fuel, bio-mass, shell-gas, etc. are unlikely to be sufficient to meet over 15 per cent of the country’s needs. All of them plus hydro-electric generation depend on external factors such as weather, accessibility and cost. In comparison, nuclear power appears to be the safest and the best bet. One Fukushima disaster can’t justify nuclear untouchability. Even Japan has realized this after shutting down most of its nuclear reactors and living on extremely expensive imported energy for almost three years since the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese government and a majority of its people want to revert to nuclear power simply for the immediate survival of their economy and society.

While Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, Ukraine’s Chernobyl in 1986 and the USA’s Three Mile Island in 1979 did jolt the global confidence in the safety and reliability aspects of nuclear technology, atomic scientists and technologists have been constantly working towards evolving a failsafe system inbuilt in new generation reactors and bringing down the safe-distance criterion set between a nuclear power plant and human habitation in the periphery keeping in mind the reality of fast fading population-free locations. If other disasters, including air and rail accidents, fire and natural calamities, in which thousands die every year, have not been able to dampen the human spirit and constant effort to conquer them, there is no reason to be paranoid about the safety aspect of nuclear energy only. The cases of nuclear disaster and deaths have been much less common than other form of human disasters. Stockpiled nuclear bombs, missiles, terrorism, religious jihads, militarism and regional wars pose the biggest threat to the modern society.

It’s true that following Fukushima, a number of countries had decided to cut down or shut down nuclear generation. Similarly, it’s also true that the world’s largest energy guzzlers such as the USA, Russia, China and the UK have, of late, planned robust nuclear generation programmes, setting up large next generation reactors.

After about a 30-year hiatus, the USA, the world’s largest nuclear power generator with over 100 giant reactors producing nearly 790 billion kWh, will have six new nuclear reactors operational by 2020. China will complete the construction of 13 new reactors by 2018. Russia is building some 28 reactors, including some for exports. India urgently needs an actionable programme and strong direction to fulfill its ambition to supply 25 per cent of electricity through nuclear power as against the current 3.6 per cent. The programme will require more than signing nuclear agreements with foreign suppliers. IPA

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