Friday, June 26, 2009

Nuclear renaissance: the Indian scene

India has come a long way in gaining technological independence in nuclear energy. Now it has to move rapidly to realise energy independence

Sixty years of independent India is a significant enough segment of our history to reflect on, as we look forward to an Indian resurgence for which we are very favourably poised. With favourable demography and the tremendous importance that knowledge-based activities have gained in recent times, we are in a specially advantageous position. Our vast population, which otherwise is a huge burden, could well become a potential asset. This is both a challenge and an opportunity .
Seen in the context of energy, which is one of the most important inputs to support the growing economy, today there is the requisite buying power to support the rapid growth of the energy sector. At the same time, there are severe energy resource constraints looming large. The non-availability of energy in required amounts could, in fact, severely restrict our developmental aspirations. One may question the developmental model that relies heavily on large-scale energy use. However, it seems impossible to sustain a tension-free society with 20 or 30 times less per capita energy access in the current interdependent world so closely connected through modern-day communications. Even at such a low level of per capita energy use, today we account for around 6 per cent of the global use of coal and around 2.5 per cent of the global use of hydrocarbons. With a projected growth of about 10-15 times the current electricity generation capacity by the middle of the century, while in per capita energy use terms we will still be a factor of three lower than the current usage in the western industrialised world, we will, along with China, cause very significant stress on global fossil energy. Such a stress, apart from leading to the serious question of sharply rising energy prices, will raise formidable issues related to the sustainability of energy resources and a much larger threat to global climate stability in an already fraught scenario.
One needs to look at nuclear energy in this context. Energy associated with processes involving the nucleus of an atom is several million-fold higher than the energy associated with processes that involve electrons that orbit around the nucleus. The latter forms the basis of energy through burning of fossil fuels. Thus, a kilogram of uranium can be a source of a million times more energy as compared to a kilogram of coal or a kilogram of hydrocarbon. Non-emission of greenhouse gases that have threatened the global climate is also a feature of nuclear energy that is catching the imagination of even some of those who earlier opposed it. As a matter of fact, nuclear energy released through fission or fusion of atomic nuclei and solar energy that we receive from the sun are the only two viable basic energy sources capable of meeting our long-term energy needs. We also cannot escape the fact that the sun derives its energy from nuclear fusion.
There is, however, a serious fear of the unknown, accentuated by the man-made Hiroshima-Nagasaki holocaust. Such concerns are natural and have been faced by humankind whenever there has been a paradigm shift in things around it. Whether it is in learning to live with fire or shifting from horse carriage to locomotives and automobiles, man has gone through similar situations. But eventually he has mastered the new technology and accessed its benefits, overcoming the fear of the unknown. In the absence of such adventures we could not have made progress.
Our living with nuclear radiation is as old as the universe itself. The origin of the universe is, in fact, inseparably associated with radiation and nuclear synthesis. The evolution of life in the universe has taken place alongside the radiation environment. This co-existence continues. Extremely high energy intensity that is associated with the atomic nucleus also leads to the military dimension associated with nuclear energy. The co-existence of military and commercial dimensions is a standard feature of any technology — be it explosives or steels and other materials or engines, or for that matter nuclear energy.
In the case of nuclear energy we are, however, talking on an altogether different scale. Given the population pressure and the need to provide a good quality of life to all, we must evolve ourselves as a society that can benefit from such high-intensity energy source without the risk of its misuse.
Sixty years of independent India have seen our country develop a self-reliant capability in nuclear technology based on indigenous research and development (R&D). We are today a recognised state with advanced nuclear technology. Our domestic R&D has enabled the development of indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) technology for electricity generation. It is a commercial success, meeting or exceeding global benchmarks in terms of capital cost, gestation period, O&M performance, and generation costs. Investments made in R&D have led to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India’s (NPCIL) 14 commercial nuclear power units running with profits and returning around Rs.450 crore as annual dividend besides generating a surplus that can finance the setting up of generation capacity to the tune of around 1000 MWe a year.
In spite of these favourable factors, one does occasionally hear comments that are based on the presumed superiority of imported technology over domestic development–reflecting a deep-seated inferiority complex and lack of self-esteem. Hopefully, with the opening up of markets, R&D-driven innovations will become inevitable and come centre stage in Indian business, thus leading to our competing on the world scene on the basis of our technologies rather than our strength just in terms of knowledge workers. In any case, our PHWR technology, along with technologies that create its inputs such as nuclear fuel, heavy water, zirconium structurals, and so on, is in a mature state to propel itself on the domestic scene and also on the global scene when the technology control regime around us is deshackled.
Three-stage programme
Unfortunately, our nuclear resource endowments are modest in terms of uranium, which is the only naturally available material that contains a fissionable component. Our thorium endowments are, however, vast. Our three-stage nuclear power programme is based on this reality, which is unique in India’s case. The programme has its first stage of commercial deployment of PHWRs well under way as mentioned earlier. In the second stage, we will deploy a series of fast breeder reactors, which will enable power generation capacity to be taken to several hundred thousand megawatt level beginning with the plutonium in the spent fuel being discharged from PHWRs and breeding more plutonium from uranium in the spent fuel. Our vast thorium resources can then be deployed for power generation at high levels realised by fast reactors for a few hundred years. Fast breeder reactors are thus key to our energy independence.
The imperatives of our three-stage nuclear power programme are unique, with no parallel in the short or medium term. We have now mounted an aggressive uranium exploration programme using advanced electromagnetic survey techniques to detect deep-seated deposits. This is a new approach and experts in geology say there is no reason why India should not be host to rich and large uranium deposits. The availability of additional uranium resources, which is the main constraint today, will enable us to construct more PHWR units, leading to a rapid increase in generation capacity over and above the 10,000 MWe planned for the first stage. This augmented base will lead to a much larger share for nuclear power in the long run through 50-60-fold multiplication as a result of the three-stage programme.
We look at the possibility of opening up international civil nuclear cooperation also in the same light. The import of uranium, or for that matter the import of reactors and uranium, can add to quicker capacity addition in the short run. With a three-stage strategy, it will lead to further manifold multiplication in the long run.
Our emphasis on three-stage deployment should thus continue. As a matter of fact, the advancement of domestic technological capability in fast breeder reactors, thorium reactors, and associated fuel cycle activities has already earned us significant recognition worldwide. It is clear that this path, while not an immediate priority to other countries that are advanced in nuclear technology, primarily as a result of their easy access to uranium, will soon become important for them.
Renaissance of nuclear power is bound to lead to stress on uranium supplies in the near future, just as we are witnessing stress on fossil fuels today. Fast breeder and thorium reactors will, therefore, have to come centre stage. When this happens, our prior work and experience on these systems will provide us a distinct advantage.
Environmentally acceptable spent fuel management is another important attribute of our three-stage programme. In the absence of reprocessing and recycling, the spent fuel has to be disposed of as such after suitable conditioning. This leads to the issue of having to cope with safe management of long-lived waste over a period of the order of 100,000 years. While technological solutions for this purpose are available, such a waste repository will become a potential plutonium mine once most of the radioactivity has decayed down over a period of time and pose a potential nuclear security risk for future generations. It is ironical that while we remain conscious of the needs of future generations in terms of resources and environment, opposition to reprocessing on grounds of proliferation concerns with little regard for the much needed energy that is contained in the spent fuel completely ignores the security threat to future generations with the creation of such plutonium mines.

INDIGENOUS CAPABALITIES: Sixty years of independent India have seen the country develop a self-reliant capability in nuclear technology based on indigenous research and development. The reactors in Kalpakkam are among the achievements.
Reprocessing and recycling under good institutional control, in fact, simultaneously realises sustainability for resources, environment, and security. In fact, with accelerator-driven thorium systems there is even a possibility of efficient incineration of long-lived waste, with radioactive waste management not remaining an issue beyond a period longer than what can be managed within the life span of institutions.
The implementation of the three-stage programme has to be a sustained mission involving the development and sequential deployment of a range of technologies. We have already advanced on the fast breeder reactor technology, and we are one of the very few countries with capabilities in this area.
When we complete the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR), we will be the second country in the world to operate a commercial power unit based on a fast breeder reactor. While more units based on the PFBR design will be built, we will need to bring in metallic fuel technology with its much shorter doubling time, as early as possible. The 300 MWe Advanced Heavy Water Reactor will be a technology demonstrator for energy from thorium and a forerunner to the future third stage reactor systems.
While electricity is the most convenient energy carrier today and we talk about nuclear reactors producing electricity, hydrogen as an energy carrier will soon become a necessity following the depletion of naturally available fluid hydrocarbons. Nuclear reactors that can make fission energy available at high-enough temperature of around 1000 degrees C are necessary for the commercially viable production of hydrogen. The development of such reactors along with the development of technologies for production, storage, transport, and utilisation of hydrogen is thus a part of our development agenda. The development of Accelerator Driven Sub-critical Reactor systems and fusion energy systems also form a part of our long-term energy vision. We are already a partner in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Project.
We have thus come a long way in gaining technological independence in nuclear energy despite the embargo regime. Now we have to move further, rather rapidly, to realise energy independence. Looking at the severe fossil energy resource constraint that will soon impact us, the only way to secure energy independence in the long run is to take recourse to new energy technologies that can exploit other energy resources available indigenously.
India, with its efforts to provide a decent quality of life to all its people and ambition to be a dominant player on the global scene, needs to be a leader rather than a follower, in terms of energy technologies, specially the ones that can address its specific requirements, which in many ways are unique. The new confidence with which India is marching ahead gives the hope that this indeed will happen.
Dr. Anil Kakodkar is Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.

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