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Winning the real race with China, are we?

Winning the real race with China,  are we?
How many years does it take for the government of India to, first, decide on and, then, implement a nuclear power project? The subject is relevant since neighbouring China, India’s main rival in global economic standing and growth, has announced its plan to set up 100 nuclear power projects at home and abroad in next 10 years. China is the world’s largest energy consumer. It is also the world’s No. 1 coal producer. It has a reasonably good proven petroleum reserves. China’s latest tie up with the United Kingdom to set up a massive $24-billion nuclear power plant partnering EDF of France on build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis at an insignificant investment cost of the UK has raised eyebrows of the entire western world. The UK-China deal was signed and sealed last week during the visit of President Xi Jinping. China signed more than $62 billion deals with the UK. China is expected to design the British nuclear power plant.  On record, the anti-nuclear campaigners helplessly slammed the UK-China deal. The campaign was short-lived having no impact on the decision of the UK government.

Consider the contrast.  India’s atomic power research dates back to 1950s. India’s first plant, Apsara, became critical in 1956 and started generation in 1957, only three years after the world’s first nuclear power plant, Obnisk Nuclear Power Station, near Moscow became fully operational. India’s Tarapur atomic power unit came in the 1960s. Noteably, China declared its first nuclear power generation programme as late as in 1970. In 1991, China’s first nuclear power plant having 288MWe capacity was first connected to a grid. India hardly have much hydrocarbon reserves. Imports account for 80 per cent of its annual petroleum requirement. Its coal quality, exploitable reserves and production are poor. The country imports well over 100 million tones of coal per year. India and China went for nuclear power almost around the same period. Yet, India’s power plant have been able to build a nuclear generation capacity of only a little over 5,700MW as against China’s over 19,000 MW. Until now, hydroelectric power projects in India have shown longest gestation period – 10 to 25 years – for implementation since their planning stage. India’s new nuclear power projects may soon catch up with the lethargy run of hydro power projects. Nothing seems to be moving, except an Indo-Russian initiative at Kudankulam in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. Ten years have passed since the United States and India signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement that almost threatened the very existence of the then seemingly fragile Congress-led UPA government as its major political ally in Lok Sabha, the Left parties, pulled out of the arrangement in 2008. The government managed to survive by quickly manipulating ‘outside support’ until another form of a UPA combination ruled the country for another five years. The BJP-led NDA government is in power since May 2014, but no new nuclear power plant, born out of the Indo-US agreement, is still in sight.

All that is happening is what the Indian democracy has mastered in getting the country’s economic development indefinitely stalled – debating on-and-on on issues such as why India should at all go for nuclear power and why this site or that site to set up such projects. Political parties and so-called intellectuals seem to accord their free movement of tongues much more importance than on-ground development to meet the need of the country’s teeming millions. Few recognise the fact that India, the world’s second most populous country after China, and it is only a third of China’s geographical size. Leave aside the question of economically catching up with China any time soon, India has to step up development at least to feed its population, nearly 30 per cent of which make do with less than $2 per day and have little access to daily dire necessities, including electricity.

India have little choice but to go for nuclear power generation in a big way to ensure that nuclear power contributes to at least 20 per cent of its total electricity requirement to provide noticeable support to the country’s energy security programme. Nuclear power is generated by only a limited number of states. Yet, it contributes to 11 per cent of the global electricity generation as of now. 

Presently, nuclear power’s share of India’s energy generation capacity is only a meagre 2.1 per cent. India is still heavily dependent on thermal power, much of which are highly polluting. The country’s total generation capacity as on September 30, last, is 2,78,734 MW and 69.7 per cent of it is in the thermal category. The hydro-electric capacity is 42,283MW accounting for 15.2 per cent of the total capacity. Other sources, including non-conventional energy, have a combined capacity of 36,471 MW, making it 13 per cent of the total. The availability of Hydro power is mostly seasonal. Not all of the non-conventional energies are reliable for round-the-year supplies and grid-linked to serve major demands on a regular basis. India has to go for nuclear energy in a big way to meet its development needs whether politicians and anti-nuclear activists like it or not. 

Among the world’s largest nuclear power producers are the US (99,244 MW), followed by France (63,130MW), Japan (42,368 MW), Russia (24,654 MW), North Korea (20,717 MW), China (19,007 MW), Canada (13,500 MW), Ukraine (13,107 MW) and Germany (12,074 MW). France, China and Canada are in the process of building huge amount of nuclear power capacity in the coming years. Some of the arguments produced by the People’s Republic of China in favour of its massive nuclear power push are probably more relevant to India than China or any other major atomic power generators. China says it is increasingly concerned about air quality, climate change and fossil fuel shortage. 

Nuclear power is being looked as an alternative to coal power in China. And, China wants to maximise self-reliance on nuclear reactor technology, designing and manufacturing reactors and encourage international cooperation and technology transfer in this regard. Paradoxically, India, one of the world’s earliest proponents of clean nuclear energy, is still wasting time debating on to have or not to have nuclear energy.
Nantoo Banerjee

Nantoo Banerjee

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