1. Shutdown this misguided energy policy
The vulnerabilities of reactors and their high costs are strong reasons why India must cancel its nuclear expansion plans
Nuclear technology is hazardous. The world was reminded of this on March 3, when a fire broke out near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine (Europe’s largest) during the course of a military battle. Had the fire affected the cooling system, the plant’s power supply, or its spent fuel pool, a major disaster could have occurred. Luckily, this did not happen.
Eleven years ago, the people of Japan were not as fortunate. On March 11, 2011, multiple reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered severe accidents after an earthquake and a tsunami. Those reactors were quickly “shut down” following the earthquake. But their radioactive cores continued producing heat and eventually melted down because the tsunami knocked out the cooling system.
The aftershocks of the Fukushima disaster were felt beyond Japan and led to a slump in nuclear energy in most of the world. Yet, some policymakers insist on expanding nuclear power, ostensibly in response to climate-change concerns.
On December 15, 2021, the Indian government informed Parliament that it plans to build “10 indigenous reactors… in fleet mode” and had granted “in principle approval” for 28 additional reactors, including 24 to be imported from France, the U.S. and Russia. Given the post-Fukushima global and national trends in the nuclear industry, such a policy seems misguided; nuclear power is neither an economical source of electricity nor a viable route to meeting India’s climate goals.
Nuclear power plants are capital intensive and recent nuclear builds have suffered major cost overruns. An illustrative example is the V.C. Summer nuclear project in South Carolina (U.S.) where costs rose so sharply that the project was abandoned — after an expenditure of over $9 billion.
In contrast, renewable-energy technologies have become cheaper. The Wall Street company, Lazard, estimated that the cost of electricity from solar photovoltaics and wind turbines in the U.S. declined by 90% and 72%, respectively, between 2009-21. In 2020, the International Energy Agency dubbed solar energy the “new king of electricity”.
This contrast has stymied plans for expanding nuclear power. In 2008, the U.S. government projected an expansion of nuclear capacity to 114.9 gigawatts by 2030; in 2021, it predicted that capacity would contract to 83.3 gigawatts. This mirrors a global trend: in 1996, 17.5% of the world’s electricity came from nuclear power plants; by 2020, this figure had declined to just around 10%.
India has also had to drastically cut its nuclear ambitions after Fukushima. In 2008, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, projected that India would have 650GW of installed capacity by 2050; his successor, Srikumar Banerjee, predicted in 2010 that capacity would reach 35 gigawatts by 2020. Installed capacity today is only 6.78 GW.
Such targets were based on the expectation that India would import many light-water reactors after the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal. But, the deal has not led to the establishment of a single new nuclear plant, over 13 years after it was concluded. The worrying part of the Government’s recent parliamentary submission is that these plans for imports have not been cancelled, as is widely believed, and still remain on the books.
Of the 24 foreign reactors with “in principle” approval, six are of the VVER (water-water energetic reactor) design that has had multiple operational problems at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. The cumulative load factors for the Kudankulam-1 and two reactors in 2020 were just 53% and 52%, respectively.
Twelve reactors are proposed to be imported from the U.S., including at least six AP1000 reactors — the same design that was abandoned in South Carolina. Elsewhere in the U.S., the Vogtle project comprising two AP1000 reactors has escalated from an initial estimate of $14 billion to over $30 billion.
The remaining six are of the EPR design that France has been unable to successfully complete in its home country. The single EPR plant being constructed in Flamanville in France is now estimated to cost €12.4 billion, four times what was forecast when construction started in 2007.
We estimated in 2013 that had the six planned EPRs at Jaitapur in Maharashtra been constructed on schedule, electricity from these reactors would cost at least ₹ 15 per unit excluding transmission costs. Given recent cost escalations, this is most likely an underestimate. The figures from Vogtle suggest that the proposed AP1000 reactors would produce power that would similarly be costly.
Compare that figure with recent low bids of ₹2.14 per unit for solar power, and ₹2.34 for solar-wind hybrid projects; even in projects coupled with storage, bids are around ₹4.30 per unit. If nuclear electricity is to be sold at a competitive rate, it would have to be greatly subsidised by the Indian government, which operates all nuclear plants through the Nuclear Power Corporation of India.
Safety concerns following the Fukushima accident have led to protests against each planned reactor. Vijay Rupani, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, admitted in the State Assembly in March 2018 that “locals turned against” the Mithivirdi nuclear project after the Fukushima disaster.
Contrary to the condescending opinion held by some nucleocrats, peoples’ concerns are not based on an irrational fear of nuclear energy. In a densely populated country such as India, land is at a premium and emergency health care is far from uniformly available. Local citizens understand that a nuclear disaster might leave large swathes of land uninhabitable — as in Chernobyl — or require a prohibitively expensive clean-up — as in Fukushima, where the final costs may eventually exceed $600 billion.
Concerns about safety have been accentuated by the insistence of multinational nuclear suppliers that they be indemnified of liability for the consequence of any accident in India. Under pressure from multinational manufacturers, India’s liability law already largely protects them. But the industry objects to the small window of opportunity available for the Indian government to hold them to account.
The message to local citizens is simple: manufacturers do not really believe in their own claims about how safe their reactors are. If they did, they should have been willing to accept responsibility for any failure rather than insisting on special legal arrangements not available to any other industry.
Climate change will increase the risk of nuclear reactor accidents. The day after the fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, a wildfire approached the Hanul nuclear power plant in South Korea and President Moon Jae-in ordered “all-out efforts” to avoid an accident at the reactors there. In 2020, a windstorm caused the Duane Arnold nuclear plant in the U.S. to cease operations. The frequency of such extreme weather events is likely to increase in the future.
Therefore, nuclear power is not the right choice to “adapt” to climate change, which requires resilience in power systems. It is also not the appropriate choice for mitigating India’s carbon emissions since it cannot be deployed at the necessary scale. The resources spent on nuclear plants will yield quicker results if they are redirected to renewables.
Given the inherent vulnerabilities of nuclear reactors and their high costs, it would be best for the Government to unambiguously cancel its plans for a nuclear expansion.
India’s Three-Stage Nuclear Power Programme
- India’s three-stage nuclear power programme was formulated by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s to secure the country’s long term energy independence, through the use of uranium and thorium reserves found in the monazite sands of coastal regions of South India.
The ultimate focus of the programme is on enabling the thorium reserves of India to be utilized in meeting the country’s energy requirements.
- Thorium is particularly attractive for India, as it has only around 1–2% of the global uranium reserves, but one of the largest shares of global thorium reserves.
- However, at present thorium is not economically viable because global uranium prices are much lower.
- The recent Indo-US Nuclear Deal and the NSG waiver, which ended more than three decades of international isolation of the Indian civil nuclear programme, have created many hitherto unexplored alternatives for the success of the three-stage nuclear power programme.
- Thorium itself is not a fissile material, and thus cannot undergo fission to produce energy.
- Instead, it must be transmuted to uranium-233 in a reactor fueled by other fissile materials [plutonium-239 or uranium-235].
- The first two stages, natural uranium-fueled heavy water reactors and plutonium-fueled fast breeder reactors, are intended to generate sufficient fissile material from India’s limited uranium resources, so that all its vast thorium reserves can be fully utilized in the third stage of thermal breeder reactors.
Stage I – Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor [PHWR]
- In the first stage of the programme, natural uranium fuelled pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR) produce electricity while generating plutonium-239 as by-product.
[U-238 → Plutonium-239 + Heat]
[In PWHR, enrichment of Uranium to improve concentration of U-235 is not required. U-238 can be directly fed into the reactor core]
[Natural uranium contains only 0.7% of the fissile isotope uranium-235. Most of the remaining 99.3% is uranium-238 which is not fissile but can be converted in a reactor to the fissile isotope plutonium-239].
[Heavy water (deuterium oxide, D 2O) is used as moderator and coolant in PHWR].
- PHWRs was a natural choice for implementing the first stage because it had the most efficient reactor design [uranium enrichment not required] in terms of uranium utilisation.
- India correctly calculated that it would be easier to create heavy water production facilities (required for PHWRs) than uranium enrichment facilities (required for LWRs).
- Almost the entire existing base of Indian nuclear power (4780 MW) is composed of first stage PHWRs.
Stage II – Fast Breeder Reactor
- In the second stage, fast breeder reactors (FBRs)[moderators not required] would use plutonium-239, recovered by reprocessing spent fuel from the first stage, and natural uranium.
- In FBRs, plutonium-239 undergoes fission to produce energy, while the uranium-238 present in the fuel transmutes to additional plutonium-239.
Why should Uranium-238 be transmuted to Plutonium-239?
Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 can sustain a chain reaction. But Uranium-238 cannot sustain a chain reaction. So it is transmuted to Plutonium-239.
But Why U-238 and not U-235?
Natural uranium contains only 0.7% of the fissile isotope uranium-235. Most of the remaining 99.3% is uranium-238.
- Thus, the Stage II FBRs are designed to “breed” more fuel than they consume.
- Once the inventory of plutonium-239 is built up thorium can be introduced as a blanket material in the reactor and transmuted to uranium-233 for use in the third stage.
- The surplus plutonium bred in each fast reactor can be used to set up more such reactors, and might thus grow the Indian civil nuclear power capacity till the point where the third stage reactors using thorium as fuel can be brought online
- As of August 2014, India’s first Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor at Kalpakkam had been delayed – with first criticality expected in 2015, 2016..and it drags on.
Stage III – Thorium Based Reactors
- A Stage III reactor or an Advanced nuclear power system involves a self-sustaining series of thorium-232-uranium-233 fuelled reactors.
- This would be a thermal breeder reactor, which in principle can be refueled – after its initial fuel charge – using only naturally occurring thorium.
- According to replies given in Q&A in the Indian Parliament on two separate occasions, 19 August 2010 and 21 March 2012, large scale thorium deployment is only to be expected 3 – 4 decades after the commercial operation of fast breeder reactors. [2040-2070]
- As there is a long delay before direct thorium utilisation in the three-stage programme, the country is now looking at reactor designs that allow more direct use of thorium in parallel with the sequential three-stage programme
- Three options under consideration are the Accelerator Driven Systems (ADS), Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) and Compact High Temperature Reactor
2. MHA amends Foreigners Order
Passport or travel document needed
The Union Home Ministry has notified that a foreigner living in India shall hold a valid passport or any “other valid travel document”, which includes emergency certificate, certificate of identity and any other document issued by the government of a foreign country.
The Ministry through a gazette notification amended the Foreigners Orders, 1948 by inserting a new provision, paragraph 3B, stating “requirement of holding a valid passport or other valid travel document while living in India.”
The order assumes significance as many people from Afghanistan were not able to return or had decided to stay back in India after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021. India issued 200 e-Emergency X-Miscellaneous visas, out of 60,000 applications, to Afghan nationals. The passports of many Afghans seem to have either expired and are not valid anymore. The Passport Act states that a foreigner, unless exempted through a government order, needs to be in possession of a valid passport to continue to stay in India.
India had last year extended the visas of all Afghan nationals living in India on gratis until further orders. “They will not be granted exit or issued leave India notice by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) without prior approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs,” the September 2, 2021 order had said.
The Foreigners Order under Foreigners Act, 1946 regulates the entry and departure of foreigners in India. Other than this, the Passport (Entry in India) Act, 1920 prescribes the rules for foreigners authorising their stay here on the basis of visas affixed to passports or other travel documents. Foreigners not in possession of valid passports is a punishable offence.
The amended order also enables online filing of “any report or application or information.”
“…the Registration Officer or the civil authority shall verify genuineness of the report or application or information and, he may, if considered necessary, call upon the applicant or the informant for personal appearance of the applicant or informant,” the amended order says.
A Ministry official said the amendment has been done for “ease of doing business.”
“It is to improve compliance, and electronic data helps in ease of business,” the official said.