Nuclear Energy: Post COP-21

An insight into Nuclear Energy in the backdrop of Paris Climate Agreement

Nuclear energy: Post COP-21
Nuclear energy: Post COP-21

Energy is an universal currency. It is the cause of the ‘Big Bang’, the rotation of the galaxies and the thermonuclear reaction of the stars. It is the reason for the topographical features of the earth formed due to the plate tectonic forces- the high mountains and the deep trenches. It is what made life to erupt on the face of earth and it has sustained life on earth for millions of years.

Human societies have evolved from foraging to farming and then to industrial and developed economies on the basis of how energy was consumed and in what forms. Primitive Homo Sapiens depended on earth’s flora and its photosynthetic ability and the food chain of the ecosystem. As farming and more importantly agriculture was discovered man began using the sun’s energy to grow crops, heat homes and similar other purposes. Capturing the solar energy at will in the form of food for consumption was the single most important discovery ever made by man. It removed him from the natural food chain that he existed in before.

The discovery of fossil fuels turned the attention from sun to energy sources buried deep inside the earth. Industrial revolution, increasing private property and societies driven by consumption caused coal, oil and gas to be excavated more and more. Subsequently steam engines and internal combustion engines took societies to another level of historical progression. The only missing link was electricity and the invention of electric motor which rationalised the whole industrial manufacturing process. The discovery of electricity and subsequent inventions of electrical products made human life easier and brought comfort not seen before in the history of human existence.

The comfort and technological progression has come at a cost. It has deteriorated environmental quality, increased income inequality, brought corruption to governments and seen violent regimes. Hence it can be easily said that the flow of energy to human societies shows a paradox of liberation-construction versus constrained-destruction at the same time. While liberation-construction was seen in today’s developed countries (Global North), constrained-destruction was seen in countries (Global South) which paid for the development of the developed countries.

By 1942, theoretical physics had made controlled nuclear fission possible and electricity could be produced from it. Though nuclear energy a particularly clean source, the world has mostly relied on fossil fuel based generation plants for most of its needs. As of 2015 the world had installed capacity of around 390 GW that made some 11% globally.

Paris Climate Change Agreement and Need for Nuclear Energy

In the last 4 decades, the world has awaken to the crisis that has been brought about by fossil fuel based energy generation especially climate change due to green house gas emissions. While not all emissions are due to extraction, transformation and consumption of energy, agriculture and industry also have contribution through specific processes. Here, however the energy sector is responsible for 70% of all green house emissions. The main green house gases emitted by the energy sector are nitrous oxides (NOx), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide contributes to 90% of all energy related green house gas emissions and two-third of total green house gas emissions and the biggest cause of global warming.

The global response to climate change and the resulting impacts from it is a key policy challenge in the 21st century. The COP-21 in 2015 under the aegis of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held on this bedrock to reduce the green house emissions from today’s level and limit the average temperature increase to 20C in order to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. 196 participating countries in COP-21 agreed to come up with a carbon reduction plan i.e. their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and to review it every five year. Also the developed rich countries would help the poor countries to achieve these goals by providing $100 billion each year and possibly providing loan guarantees to help with financing.

The electricity sector here plays a major role as it responsible here for the over 40% of global carbon emissions. Nuclear power, hydro power, solar energy, wind energy and recently ocean energy are some of the alternatives adopted by the signatory countries.

Nuclear energy along with hydropower and wind energy produces one of the lowest carbon per unit of electricity generated in its entire life cycle which includes construction, operation, decommissioning and waste management.

It is because of this reason 10 countries in their INDCs included nuclear power in their climate action strategies. Of the 10 countries India and China had the most ambitious nuclear power programmes. The International Energy Agency and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have both emphasised on nuclear power being an effective tool for mitigating climate change. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that in order to achieve the emission control targets the global share of nuclear energy needs to be increased to 1000 GW by 2050.

Nuclear Power and Its Challenges

Nuclear power saves almost 2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions and other green house gases emissions each year and has avoided more than 60 billion tonnes of emissions over the last 3 and a half decades. There are however some indirect emissions that can be attributed to nuclear energy. Major indirect emissions come from uranium mining and uranium enrichment especially when it is supplied from fossil fuel based mediums. Nuclear power is nevertheless one of the largest sources of low-carbon electricity.

However there are many factors that have not been favourable to nuclear power including the Fukushima Daiichi accident of 2011, the global financial crisis and the failure to setup Carbon markets. The Fukushima Daiichi accident had detrimental effect on the public opinion and overall acceptance of nuclear power as a source of energy. It even led to a few countries deciding to phase out nuclear power. Since the Fukushima Daiichi accident, nuclear power generation has decreased globally which had once reached to 17% in the 1980s. The ‘poster child’ for atomic power, France has decided to cut its nuclear generating capacity by a third by 2025. Germany has already shut down half of its nuclear fleet. Even the US plans to reduce its share of nuclear electricity to 11% by 2050.

The Action Plan on Nuclear Safety by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) initiated after the Fukushima accident involved remodelling of hardware such as electrical systems, ultimate heat sinks for decay heat, reactor containment systems and reinforcing onsite and offsite emergency preparedness procedures. The issue of offsite effects from nuclear accidents is being addressed for both existing nuclear power plants and for the yet to be built plants. For existing plants development of innovative fuels with enhanced accident tolerance has begun.

The global financial crisis led to introduction of new financial regulations that made financing capital intensive projects such as new nuclear power plants difficult than in the past. While a robust carbon market and loan providing guarantee by the developed countries to developing countries (as agreed in COP-21) to help with financing can be helpful to decarbonise electricity sector, measures that ensure price stability such as long-term contracts, regulated tariffs etc remain contentious for all low-carbon generating projects. The loan guarantee can really ease financing and provide trillions of dollars in virtual climate aid over the next decade.

The Viability of Nuclear Power in India

As stated earlier, out of the 10 countries that included nuclear power in their climate action strategies India has one of the most ambitious nuclear power programmes. It plans to increase its nuclear power capacity by about 8 fold.

In the 1950s Homi Bhabha laid out a 3-stage nuclear power programme to secure long term energy security for India using the indigenous uranium reserves and vast reserves of thorium found in the monazite sands of south India. The first stage of the programme would see a building a fleet of ‘pressurised heavy water reactor’ that would use the scarce uranium to produce some plutonium. In the second stage, several ‘fast breeder reactors’ (FBR) would be set up. The FBRs would use a mixture of plutonium from the first stage and the reprocessed spent uranium from the first stage to produce energy and more plutonium (hence the name breeder).  In addition to this the reactors would convert some of the thorium into uranium-233, which could be used. After 3-4 decades the FBRs would have produced enough Plutonium to be used in the ‘third stage’. In the third stage, specially designed reactors would use uranium-233 to produce energy and also convert more thorium to uranium-233. And, thorium could be added endlessly. The approach was closed fuel cycle for energy sustainability and efficient waste management.

70 years down the line India is still stuck in the first stage. Fast breeder reactors are needed for the second stage. Construction of a 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor began in 2004 but it still has to start operation.

However, India’s civil nuclear strategy has gone a long way without any assistance of fuel or technology from foreign nations for over 30 years. This was because of 1974’s peaceful nuclear explosion and its voluntary debarment from NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), which isolated India from trading materials required for nuclear power plants. However, since 2008 nuclear trade started increasing significantly, following NSG (Nuclear Supplier Group) India- specific agreement. Agreements on civil nuclear cooperation were signed with Russia, US, Australia, France and Kazakhstan apart from a few other countries. In 2011, targets were set for generating 14.6 GW of nuclear power by 2020 and 27.5 GW by 2032. By the end of 2050, the government intends to generate 25% of the required electricity from nuclear power- around 150-200GW of installed nuclear capacity.

Presently, 22 nuclear reactors are operational in seven nuclear power plants in the country. They have a capacity of around 6780 MW. As of 2017, 35TWh (terawatt hours) of nuclear power was generated which contributed around 3% to total electrical energy required in the country. 10 more nuclear power plants are under construction which would provide 6780 MW to nuclear power generation capacity of India.

Installing nuclear power plants in India has always been engulfed in complications. For example the nuclear power plants currently under construction by foreign firms- Areva of France and Westinghouse of USA have recently gone bankrupt. Areva was given the contract of building the largest nuclear plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra while Westinghouse was contracted to set up six reactors in Andhra Pradesh. Agreement with Westinghouse & Areva were fiscally misguided and had been criticized from the beginning. It was a bit of luck that the projects had not commenced, otherwise India would have been drowning in billion dollar debt with projects remaining incomplete. The narrow escape demands for a through re-evaluation of nuclear power’s role in mixing energy of the country.

Secondly the per unit cost of electricity is also high. The construction and commissioning of nuclear reactors in India take decades and the prices escalate. There are two reactors of 700 MW under construction in Rajasthan and Gujarat which have been stalled by over 2 years and the resultant costs have not been disclosed. Estimates show that the cost per unit of electricity from these reactors would be pretty steep around Rs 6 per unit- fossil fuel based plants and hydropower plants are cheaper than this. Solar energy the biggest competitor in the race of producing low carbon energy will have rates as low as Rs 1.9-2.3 by 2030 as stated by TERI and US based think tank Climate Policy Initiative (CPI).

So, to achieve its ambitious plans and also the targets of COP-21 India needs to iron out these complications. If nuclear power has to play a role in India’s climate action strategies it has to break from previous patterns.

Conclusion

The world needs energy for its advancements and well being. But it does not have to come at the cost of environment. Across the world, severe climatic phenomenon have increased and caused insurmountable destruction.

Nuclear energy has huge potential to reduce emission globally and an important role in climate action. Nuclear power supplies unhindered electricity unlike solar parks and wind farms which are at the mercy of nature. Further solar energy in higher latitudes is not as effective as in the tropical regions. Advancements made to harness ocean energy are still not as popular and been invested in.

Nuclear power around the world has been declining since the 1980s when it had reached its peak. Most developed countries which had huge installed capacities have shut down their plants. This has mostly happened after the Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 accident due to public criticism of nuclear energy at home. However the same countries push aggressively to set up plants in the developing countries commonly touted as ‘nuclear newcomers’.

India has ambitious plans to increase its installed capacity. However there are a number of difficulties that needs to be removed before these plans are to be carried out. Climate financing can help in reducing the capital cost and make it more consumer friendly.

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