In an episode in the recent OTT series Rocket Boys, Jim Sarbh, the actor playing India’s iconic nuclear physicist Homi J Bhabha, observes, as the Apsara nuclear power reactor is inaugurated in 1956, that nuclear power will bring this country out of energy poverty and provide clean, uninterrupted electricity supply. The statement still stands as scientifically true yet the reality of nuclear power in the country remains underwhelming.
At 6.8 gigawatt (Gw), nuclear has the lowest share in India’s energy basket. Around 2010, the country set the target of having around 60 Gw of nuclear power but the plans have since slowed down following widespread concerns and protests on nuclear plants sites post the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.
Two decades later, plans are shaping up to scale up nuclear power, but in a novel way – via small modular reactors (SMRs). SMRs are nuclear power reactors of 100 to 300 megawatt (Mw).
The race to net zero: These plans need to be seen against India's ambitious plan for its energy transition under which 50 per cent of the country’s energy demand would come from non-fossil fuel sources. An ambitious renewable energy plan (wind + solar + hydro + biomass) is already in motion, but it is only recently that the policymakers decided to take a relook at nuclear power.
Though renewable energy is being scaled up around the world to replace fossil fuels, storage remains the big challenge, making the target of round-the-clock green energy supply difficult to meet.
Nuclear energy doesn't have this problem. Speaking at the third meeting of the Energy Transition Working Group of the G20 in Mumbai, Gurdeep Singh, chairman and managing director, NTPC said, “Nuclear is a great opportunity. SMRs offer us a safer, efficient mode of harnessing nuclear power. Several locations can be explored including abandoned sites of coal mines and plants.”
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Back in 2005, NTPC had aimed to widen its energy source base with investment in nuclear, hydro and renewables. Anti-nuclear activists in Tamil Nadu still remember a plan lined up by NTPC in 2007 to set up a 2 Gw power unit at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, for which the state government had then agreed to provide around 1,000 acres of land. At that time, Maharashtra, too, was under consideration by the company for a nuclear project.
On May 1 this year, NTPC joined hands with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) to develop two nuclear power plants, in what could be called one of the first breakthroughs in the thermal power major’s foray into nuclear energy. The two players will form a joint venture and develop two Pressurised Heavy-Water Reactor (PHWR) projects, one at Chutka in Madhya Pradesh (1,400 Mw) and another at Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan (2800 Mw).
“At this point of time, the only carbon-free source of electricity that is despatchable is nuclear. NTPC is getting into this because it is to a large extent dependent on thermal power. They must figure out the future energy roadmap. They also have the engineering knowledge to build a large part of the system,” said Karthik Ganesan of the Council for Energy, Environment & Water (CEEW).
He added that NTPC is well placed to explore these plans as it has access to financing. “NPCIL operates with cash that the government of India gives and does not raise money outside. NTPC will be able to do that, which will help in efficient, faster and better managed project construction,” Ganesan said.
Given their small size, NTPC believes, SMRs will be quick to build, easier to operate and synchronise with the grid. “They are also considered relatively safe. Although they can be mishap prone, the impact area is “significantly minimal,” according to a senior executive.
This was reiterated by Ajeet Mohanty, Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Speaking at a seminar on SMRs at the same G20 summit, he said the country needs energy while mitigating carbon emissions, which is only possible through nuclear energy. “We are talking about small reactors; these are 3rd or 4th generation reactors. SMRs have site-specific advantages, they can replace coal fired stations and are extremely safe,” Mohanty said.
NTPC is reportedly looking to produce 2,000 Mw of nuclear power by 2032, 4,200 Mw by 2035 and 20,000 Mw by 2050. NTPC is in talks with the Department of Atomic Energy, BARC and Uranium Corporation of India for procuring nuclear fuel.
“The cost listed for nuclear plants is nearly Rs 7.5 per unit. Today solar is at Rs 3 per unit. But in nuclear, fuel costs are minimal, all the costs are upfront construction,” Ganesan said.
According to CEEW, around Rs 12-15 crore per Mw is the upfront cost for nuclear, versus Rs 8-9 crore for thermal and solar and wind between Rs 3-5 crore. Going by this thumb rule, the large nuclear plants in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan projects may cost between Rs 50,000-63,000 crore.
Sector executives expect the cost of SMRs to be at least half of the large reactor, though no credible study is available yet on this nascent technology. Only Russia currently has SMRs at a pilot stage.
Meanwhile, the concerns have already started trickling in. “While NTPC is coming out with ambitious targets, calling the projects as zero emission, they are not factoring in the nuclear waste and its treatment. They should also make clear on how these wastes are going to be treated,” said S P Udayakumar, a leading anti-nuclear activist from Tamil Nadu and the convenor of the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE).
He said the concept that nuclear power is clean is wrong. “During the process a lot of conventional energy is required. The amount of steel and cement used in construction will be coming from polluting sources. During construction, functioning and even decommissioning, dirty energy is being used,” Udayakumar added.
Such differences between the pro- and anti-nuclear power lobbies are not limited to India. Globally as well, the US and the European Union are batting for more nuclear power in the mix touting it as the clean, green energy source. The EU Parliament has even proposed to label nuclear “green energy” along with gas. Predictably, this proposal has precipitated fierce arguments between pro- and anti-nuclear factions.