Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Forgotten Debates On Nuclear Power: Circa 2007

Three years ago, I wrote two articles for the Business Standard newspaper. The first, which appeared on October 30, 2007 was called, 'Dump Nuclear Energy For Renewables'. The second, called The Staggering Cost of Nuclear Power appeared three weeks later on November 17.

I am reproducing both articles because I am even more convinced now. Not because of the safety issues that Japan's earthquake has highlighted but the fundamental problems with setting up nuclear power plants that we haven't fully understood, or debated. Actually, I am quite amazed myself how little or nothing has changed. Including the fact that Kudankulam, which I refer to here, is yet to go on stream. Or is finally promised to go live now.


Govindraj Ethiraj / New Delhi October 30, 2007

I visited the Nuclear Power Corporation’s Kudankulam installation, 25 km west of Kanyakumari, two years ago on a dazzlingly clear day. On paper, the project was impressive — 2,000 Mw of fossil-free energy pumped into the country’s power grid at costs that sounded affordable, at least the weighted average cost over the plant’s life.

As my hosts described the project scope and timeline, I asked them when they began work. “Well, technically in 2001, though the first concrete pour was in March 2002,” one of them said. “When is it supposed to be ready?” If I remember, the answer was 2007.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the cost and time factors until a few weeks later when I discovered Kudankulam was actually conceptualised in 1988. It then went off the radar for ten years after the Russians, who offered to help build it, got busy with the USSR’s disintegration. But it was not the Russians alone who delayed the project. Local environmental protests held it back as well. Incidentally, 2007 will end soon and Kudankulam is not ready.

Nuclear Power Is Too Expensive

I remembered Kudankulam again last week when participating in an insightful discussion on climate change hosted by the British High Commission in Mumbai. The panel was led by environmental journalist Paul Brown, author of Global Warning: The Last Chance For Change, and also had Dr Rakesh Kumar from the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).

Not surprisingly, one point of debate was whether nuclear power should be favoured over thermal power, a key contributor to greenhouse gases. In the exchange that followed, Kumar took the scientific standpoint that nuclear power was cleaner over the long term and thus preferable. Brown disagreed, though more for other reasons.

“Nuclear power is too expensive,” he said vehemently. According to Brown, even if you ignored the safety aspects, the cost of uranium mining and enriching, running the plant, and, finally, disposing of nuclear waste was rarely presented upfront. Moreover, plants were located far from populated areas for safety reasons. Which means that at least 10% of the electricity (Brown’s “local” estimates) would be lost before it reached anywhere.

Where's The Time/Cost Debate ?

So what is Brown suggesting? According to him, for the same money, every billion dollars spent on nuclear power, you could have hundreds of small- scale renewable alternatives installed, some within months. These would include solar panels, small-scale hydro and wind turbines on homes, offices and factories. Considering that homes in cities like Bangalore are increasingly turning towards solar heating for water, I am inclined to believe this. And there must be a reason for a windmill stock called Suzlon Energy to catch stock market fancy.

All the same, let’s assume Brown is being a little alarmist. I would still insist on a debate on time and cost. The best case construction time for a nuclear power plant is 10 years, give or take. In India, it’s mostly “give”. Even internationally, it could go to 12 years. Second, cost. With the government funding the project, you can be pretty sure that there are several numbers that are not getting thrown up.

Even if there are no over-runs, we are talking about a figure close to Rs 6 crore per Mw at the very least. Which banker, I wonder, would leap at a 10-year outlay at the minimum with such a high capital cost and all sorts of hidden costs, unless it is subsidised, which is the case in most countries, including the UK, as Brown pointed out? Then how long and why should we subsidise nuclear energy particularly if we don’t need to?

No Legislation Either

Even if the bankers sign off, I can bet my half-life that no nuclear plant project will take off in India without first being slapped with a battery of lawsuits and environmental protests. I know site identification is on but can you guess where the next three nuclear power generation sites in India are going to be? I have no clue but I do know that the government is trying to squeeze in two more nuclear plants into Kudankulam.

And by the way, the legislation to allow private sector firms into nuclear power has not been passed. Once again I have no clue where this stands. I can assure you, though, that this is not the easiest legislation to push through, considering that, among other things, the word nuclear, for valid and invalid reasons, is now tied to the Indo-US nuclear deal.

So given all of this and also India’s general track record in big project execution, why then, I wonder, is the government not putting all this energy (in saving the Indo-US deal or propounding nuclear options) into renewables? Incidentally, we generate more than 6,000 Mw of renewable energy but only around 4,000 Mw of nuclear energy! The figures are from NPC and not mine.

So if I were Dr Manmohan Singh, I would call up President Bush and tell him that apart from our left problems, we’ve got a big one when it comes to reconciling the cost of nuclear power versus the returns it will give and the actual time it will take to get more projects off the ground.

Moreover, I would say, we need renewable energy quickly since we don’t want to go down the polluting path that your country did. So instead of pushing nuclear, why don’t you sell us some clean renewable energy producing technologies? You don’t have to go too far for that, you can begin with General Electric, the company that first sold us the nuclear reactors 40 years ago. GE’s big thrust nowadays, in case you have not noticed, is ecomagination.


Govindraj Ethiraj / Mumbai November 13, 2007

In 2003, the MIT led an “interdisciplinary” study resulting in an exhaustive report titled “The Future of Nuclear Power”. Four years later, the study continues to be a bible of sorts for proponents of a nuclear power renaissance. And, interestingly enough, for detractors of nuclear power as well.

The opposing views sum up the debates surrounding nuclear power today. While most pro-nuclear power scientific studies and opinions claim nuclear power is safer and cheaper, they also acknowledge that cost is critical. They also argue that cost must not be seen in the absolute, rather in the context of savings in greenhouse emissions.

Last fortnight, I argued that given the cost and time overruns of nuclear power plants in India and their minuscule contribution to total capacity, they are just not worth the effort. I admit that what you may well hear from most detractors is the worst-case scenario for anything nuclear and the best case for everything else, particularly those related to non-fossil fuels.

Renewable Scores

But I also argued that if we already generate more renewable energy in India than nuclear power (6,190 Mw versus 4,120 Mw), than what sense does it make to pursue the latter? Assuming of course, at least for the purpose of estimation, we have no dual-use objectives for nuclear fuel or the power plants.

My little reading of the subject shows that opinions on the cost of nuclear power can vary sharply. Often the best scientific brains are on opposing sides. And both can brandish figures to support their claims. But even the most optimistic do not claim that nuclear power is a bargain basement buy. And even these seem to skip the crucial matter of over-runs. And it’s because of the over-runs that the fundamental viability of nuclear power must be questioned.

A Greenpeace report titled “The Cost of Nuclear Power”, released in May this year, highlights the considerable delays in constructing nuclear power plants all over the world. It quotes, for instance, US Department of Energy (DoE) data to show that while the estimated cost of 75 reactors in operation in the US was $45 billion, the final bill was $145 billion.

Longer To Build, Costlier To Erect

The report also points out that the average construction time for nuclear plants has increased from 66 months for completions in the mid 70s to 116 months or almost 10 years between 1995 and 2000. Greenpeace says the longer construction times are symptomatic of a range of problems including managing the construction of increasingly complex reactor designs.

In India’s Tarapur III & IV, for example, the cost went from Rs 2,427 crore at start to a final figure of Rs 6,200 crore. Greenpeace figures also show that all nuclear plants in India have run massively over time even as capital costs ballooned. Greenpeace has also compiled, interestingly, details of some 14 nuclear power projects the world over where work has stalled. These are mostly in former Soviet Russia but also include Argentina and Brazil.

India’s Department of Atomic Energy has an installed nuclear generation target of 20,000 Mw by 2020. Completing nuclear reactors under construction will take the capacity to 7,280 Mw. A good part of this, for instance, the Kudankulam power project, will be delayed and will have cost implications which will only emerge in later Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) reports.

The Total Cost Equation

The question thus is not whether nuclear makes sense. From a technology and safety perspective, India’s track record is undoubtedly sound. India’s skills in this sector are also good. Fuel is a question mark but it can be bought from somewhere. And finally there is the cost and effort involved in decommissioning and nuclear waste.

But the total cost picture is what is extremely unclear. Incidentally, building any new power plant is fraught with risk. This is quite evident if you look at the number of announcements that have been made over the years (including Ultra Mega Power Projects) and those that have actually fructified. On the other hand, capacity could come from anywhere. Reliance Energy’s two proposed plants at Sasan and Krishnapatnam will alone add 8,000 Mw to the national grid. And there are other projects as well, all of which together dwarf the activity on the nuclear side.

The lesson here is that nuclear power is good but mostly in theory. When it comes to capacity addition, the private sector will move much faster with fossil fuel-based projects. Obviously that is not a great idea, either. But in any case that’s not the thinking that really seems to be driving our nuclear power programme.

The Final Equation

If the government is so keen to pursue this, then total costs for every component of construction — technology, operations and disposal — must be made completely transparent. The Department of Atomic Energy, the mother organisation for all things nuclear in India, should explain why and how it feels nuclear power is favourable over, let’s say, renewables.

Interestingly, the DAE has a primary mandate of increasing the share of nuclear power in the country. Its other mandates include driving nuclear research and applications in medicine, food processing, agriculture and “basic research”. One solution is to bring expand the mandate to include, maybe, renewable as well. That should not be too difficult. Once upon a time, the Electronics Corporation of India, a DAE arm, used to make economy television sets.


b50 on 2:03 pm said...

I think I'd read these when it was originally published. Good to read it again. Didn't know the case against nuclear power had such compelling reasons. Wonder if the Indian Government is listening. You were prescient too when you bet half your life that "a battery of lawsuits and environmental protests: would happen!


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