Can we do without nuclear power in India?

Shankar Sharma

Shankar SharmaShankar Sharma is a Power Policy Analyst based in Thirthahally, Karnataka. He can be contacted at shankar.sharma2005 @

A version of this paper was submitted at the people’s hearing on nuclear power policy at New Delhi on 22.8.2012

The debate as to whether nuclear power is a safe, suitable and essential option for India has been going on for many decades. While the proponents of the nuclear power have been offering many arguments in favour of the option, there have been any numbers of issues raised by those who consider it to be not a credible solution to meet the legitimate electricity requirements of our society on a sustainable basis. Whereas such a debate has been going on in other countries also, a densely populated and poor country like India should consider the nuclear option from the perspective of overall welfare of its communities.

Overarching principles on societal welfare

While the contentious issues on safety, sustainability and economics of nuclear power may not be settled in the near future there is an urgent need to look at nuclear power from the perspective of Precautionary Principle as adopted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), and as per the spirit of our Constitution. The Precautionary Principle is an approach to uncertainty, and provides for action to avoid serious or irreversible environmental harm in advance of scientific certainty of such harm. According to this principle, those activities which are likely to pose significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that the expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed. Since the economic costs and risks associated with nuclear power to our society is not negligible, since many implications/consequences of a nuclear accident are not known yet, and since the total cost to the society of safeguarding the spent nuclear fuel for hundreds of years is not known, the basic need for additional nuclear power capacity can be and must be analysed objectively.

Major issues for the society with Nuclear power technology

Economic Issues

Demands large tracts of forests and fertile land; huge capital and decommissioning costs; long term waste management costs; serious shortages of nuclear fuels in India; impact on food availability subsequent to accidents; true costs to society can be huge; massive costs to society subsequent to an accident

Social Issues

Peoples’ displacement and health; long term health implications; concerns in birth and genetic deformities; inter generational implications of nuclear waste;



Mining related pollution; radiation emission during operation and from nuclear wastes for centuries ; radiation contamination of air, water and land; contamination of food products

In the overall context of the societal welfare some fundamental questions need to be raised. The primary objective of a nuclear power station is the production of electricity. There are many benign ways of producing the electricity. Has our society harnessed all the benign alternatives available for us to the maximum extent?  What is the efficiency of the usage of the existing electricity infrastructure in the country?  Is there a scope for meeting all the legitimate demand for electricity of our society by a combination of these benign alternatives?  Can an objective analysis of Costs V/S Benefits of a nuclear power project as compared to these benign options prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is in the best interest of our society?

Also, since the declared objective of nuclear power policy in the country is to meet the electricity demand of our communities, a dispassionate analysis of the very need for nuclear power and suitable alternatives in Indian context has become urgent. As of 30 June 2012 the nuclear power capacity in the country was 4,780 MW out of the total power capacity of 2,05,340 MW. Whereas this small percentage (2.32%) of nuclear power has been less than 5% of the total installed power capacity for decades, the time has come to rationally view the role of such a small percentage in the overall context of the power sector.

CEA data reveals that for the year 2011-12 the electrical energy demand was 936,568 MU, whereas the demand met was 857,239 MU, which meant a short fall of 8.5%. Similarly, for this period the peak power demand was 130,250 MW and the demand met was 115,847 MW with resultant shortfall of 11%. The contribution of nuclear power during this period was 32,287 MU (3.4% of the total). Assuming 80% PLF and 10% auxiliary consumption the maximum power output by nuclear power sector during the peak demand period could be about 3,440 MW, though it could be much less if one or more reactors were not operating at that time. This works out to about 3% of the total power met during peak demand period.

With such a low share of electricity produced how critical has been the nuclear power to our society?

Between 2006-07 and 2011-12 the capacity utilisation factor of the nuclear power plants around the country has varied between 50% and 71% of the installed capacity, as per NPCIL website data. RAPS units 1 & 2 have been de-rated to 100 MW and 200 MW respectively as compared to original designed capacity of 220 MW each.
Nuclear power authorities had promised a much larger share of nuclear power in the country. Dr. Homi J Bhabha had announced that there would be 8,000 MW of nuclear power in the country by 1980. By 1962, the prediction went upto 20,000 – 25,000 MW by 1987, and by 1969 the AEC predicted that by 2000 there would be 43,500 MW of nuclear generating capacity.

The reality has been quite different. Installed nuclear power capacity was only 4,780 MW in mid-2012. The difficulties faced by the nuclear power sector in meeting its own capacity addition target since independence has to be kept in proper perspective before we plan for additional power plants. There have also been issues with the reliable supply of nuclear fuel. The Integrated Energy Policy (IEP) has estimated that the Uranium reserve in the country can support only about 10,000 MW of nuclear power capacity. If the country were to rely on import of nuclear fuel and technology, the energy security becomes a major issue.

The very nature of nuclear power makes it essential to be connected to a larger power network. In the event of power blackouts as happened recently the nuclear power plants have credible chance of being affected adversely, with the possibility of a radiation leakage. A large size nuclear power plant such as the one proposed at Jaitapura (10,000 MW capacity) can even be a cause for a power black out, in the case of major trouble in the plant resulting in tripping of all the generating units in a short span of time.

A Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) document of 2008 is “A Strategy for the Growth of Electricity in India” which projects nuclear power capacity of 275,000 MW (as compared to 4,780 MW now) by 2050. Assuming an average power capacity of 500 MW each this means about 550 reactors. In view of the need for a large quantity of water to run these plants, it is natural to expect that they are located close to the coast. With the main land coast line of about 6,000 kM this works out to approximately 11 kM between two reactors. Even assuming that 2 or 4 reactors are placed in a straight line perpendicular to the coast, the distance between two nuclear power plants can only between 22 to 44 kM. Assuming a circular safe zone with a radius of 2 km around each reactor, 550 reactors would require a total of approximately 7,000 Sq. kM. Can such a situation be in the interest of a densely populated country?

When we look at the chronic power cuts of about 10-15% faced by our communities, the huge investment that has gone in to nuclear power sector despite which it’s share is miniscule, and the huge scope for efficiency improvement feasible within the existing power infrastructure, the true relevance of the nuclear power can become suspect. Although a massive amount of money is reported to have been spent on various activities associated with nuclear power research since independence the contribution of the nuclear power to the total installed power capacity in India as of now is tiny.  The massive budgetary support to nuclear power sector since independence if given to efficiency improvement measures and to harness our renewable energy sources, can transform the power sector with many other associated benefits.

Efficiency of power sector in India

It is a well known fact that the overall efficiency of the power sector in the country is one of the lowest in the world. T&D losses alone are reported to be about 25% against international best practice of 5%. A quick look at the efficiency levels within the power sector in India can reveal that there is a huge scope for generating virtual additional power to the extent of 40% to 50% of what is being produced now.

Power Sector Efficiency in India

Power Sector AreaPrevailing level of efficiency / loss in IndiaPotential for improvement/savings (percentage of total annual energy)
Generating capacity utilisation50 – 60%5-10 %
Aggregate Technical & Commercial losses (AT&C) 35 – 40 %15 -20%
End use efficiency in agriculture45 – 50 %15-20%
End use efficiency in industries and commerce50 – 60 %5 -10 %
End use efficiency in other areas

(domestic, street lights and others)

40 – 50 %5 -10 %
Demand Side ManagementPotential to reduce the effective demand by more than 20%

(Source: Author’s estimation based on IEP, National Electricity Policy, Annual reports of CEA, and many other reports/article on Indian Power Sector)

Efficiency increase in the end use of electricity alone, whether in lighting, heating or motive power etc. is estimated to provide more than 20% of virtual additional power capacity at about 25% of the cost of new nuclear power plant without any of the attendant risks.

Improving the overall efficiency of the power sector to international best practices alone can provide virtual additional power, which can be more than the planned nuclear power capacity by 2032. The real need for additional nuclear power capacity should be objectively considered in this context.

Costs and Benefits Analysis (CBA) and alternatives
It is an accepted practice worldwide to deploy the CBA in order to determine the most suitable option in any project which can provide maximum benefits at least cost to the society. In the case of nuclear power technology in India such a CBA would reveal that there are many much benign options to meet the electricity demand of our masses. Just to cite one example, the capital cost estimated for the proposed Jaitapura Nuclear power project in Maharastra is estimated to be about Rs. 20 Crores per MW, whereas the capital cost for a coal based or dam based hydel project is reported to be in the range of Rs. 7 to 10 crores per MW.

The issues, which have been raised in a number of papers released within the country on the economics of nuclear industry, need to be fully appreciated and addressed.  One such paper, by Dr. M V Ramana, formerly of ISEC, Bangalore has established with reasonable amount of certainty that the real cost of a modern nuclear power station is clearly higher than that of a comparable size coal based power station.  If we also take into objective account the long term storage costs and all the associated environmental and health costs, the nuclear power projects will be much costlier than the coal based power projects.

The life cycle cost of nuclear power including that of nuclear fuel mining, transportation, processing, decommissioning of reactors, and safeguarding nuclear wastes for hundreds of years (though not quantified so far), is projected to be many times more than that of other power generation technologies. Very sadly, these costs are not being accounted for in determining the cost of nuclear power to our society.

The direct and indirect costs to our densely populated and ill-prepared country in the unfortunate event of an accident such as the ones in Chernobyl and Fukushima can be horrendous. One major accident alone can negate all the electricity benefits from all the nuclear power plants in the country since independence.

An essential part of the CBA is the objective consideration of all feasible alternatives for a given project. If we consider the Jaitapura Nuclear power project in this context one can clearly see many credible alternatives to obtain the equivalent of net power/energy from that project. The net average output from the plant in a year can be expected to be about 6,300 MW of peak power & about 44,000 MU annual energy (assuming 80% PLF, 10% auxiliary consumption and about 25% T&D losses in the Western Region). Credible alternatives look highly attractive.

(a) T&D loss reduction from 25% to 5% in Western Region alone can yield about 6,400 MW & 47,000 MU (demand met was 32,100 MW and 233,000 MU in 2009-10 as per CEA).
(b) Using CFLs/LEDs in place of incandescent lamps and loss reduction techniques in IP sets within Western Region can yield about 6,400 MW and 47,000 MU of annual energy.
(c) PLF improvement in thermal power plants and loss reduction in domestic and commercial applications can yield about 6,300 MW and correspondingly high annual energy.

It should be noted that the capital cost of these alternative measures is much lower than that of the proposed nuclear power plant, and the operational costs are negligible. As per Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) at the prevailing cost of additional energy generation, it costs a unit of energy about one fourth the cost to save than to produce it with new capacity. Additionally, the social and environmental costs of these efficiency improvement measures will be negligible as compared to the costs of a nuclear power plant.

True relevance of Renewable Energy Sources

Being a tropical country, India is endowed with huge potential in new and renewable energy sources as in the table below.
Renewable Energy potential in India

Renewable Energy potential in India

Potential (Grid interactive power only)
1. Wind energy50,000 MW (Onshore only) / (100,000 MW as per WISE) / 748,000 to 976,000 MW as per a recent study in 2011)
2. Small hydro15,000 MW
3. SolarOver 5,000 trillion kWH/year Potential (estimated to be

many times more than the total energy needs of the country) / (200,000 MW of CSP as per WISE)

4. Bio-mass> 50,000 MW
5. Ocean based Energy With about 7,000 kM of coastal line potential should be huge, but no estimates available
6. Geo-thermalEstimated to be considerable

(Primary Source: MNRE, Govt. of India)

Whereas the grid interactive potential of renewable energy sources itself is huge and is capable of meeting most of the electricity requirements of the country, effective deployment of such sources in a distributed mode such as roof top solar PV panels or community based bio-mass/ wind power units will provide much more benefits such as minimum T&D losses, accelerated rural electrification & development, and reduced expenditure to the STATE. Solar power alone is estimated to have the potential to meet the total energy needs of the country.

As per a simulation by Greenpeace International, by 2050 India can meet around 65% of electricity and 50% of the Primary Energy demands from renewable energy sources. Being a poor and densely populated country, there is no alternative to India other than taking such rational approach. As per IPCC report ‘Special Report Renewable Energy Sources (SRREN)’ renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades.

Safety, social and environmental concerns

If resource rich, knowledgeable and quality/safety conscious countries (US, Russia and Japan) could not avert nuclear emergencies, can our densely populated and ill-prepared society ever hope to avert the possible human catastrophe from a nuclear mishap? It will be unrealistic to expect a risk free nuclear power plant. However small the probability of a nuclear accident may be, the consequences for a densely populated country like India can be horrendous. In the case of a complex technology such as nuclear power the true value and the credible risks to the entire society, including the flora and fauna, and general environment should be determined objectively.

While more and more complex safety systems/redundancies are being designed and built for the overall safety of nuclear power stations, it should be noted that they are only increasing the number of sub-systems and the complexity.  Such complex systems can result in increasing the risk of failure of individual sub-systems/ sub-components (because of unintended/ unexpected interaction between sub-systems), and increasing new accident modes. All these can result in an increase in the number of automatic shutdown of reactors or catastrophic failures. The rapidity at which a minor problem in the complex system of safety can escalate into a major disaster is great in a nuclear power station, as experienced at Chernobyl.

How safe is it for our communities to ignore the sane advises by Dr. A K Gopala Krishnan (former Chairman, AERB), Dr. Balaram (Director, IISc), Mikhail Gorbachev (former president of USSR), Dr. Helen Caldicott (founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility), Naoto Kan (Former Japanese Prime Minister) and many others? The insistence of the nuclear reactor suppliers/builders to get a waiver for them on the nuclear damages liability, and the refusal of any insurance agencies to provide insurance against nuclear accident are clear indications of the huge consequences of a nuclear accident.

Pro-nuclear advocates have started arguing that nuclear power is a good option against Global Warming since they do not emit GHGs in reactor operation. Observers are of the opinion that floundering nuclear establishments around the world have grabbed this second opportunity (of arguments w.r.t Global Warming), and have made claims for massive state investments in the hope of resurrecting an industry that has largely collapsed due to its inability to provide clean, safe or cheap electricity. Two assumptions made by such pro-nuclear advocates are fundamentally flawed. One is that Global Warming can be contained without fundamentally changing the Western pattern of energy consumption; because nuclear energy is a tiny contributor to energy mix world wide (hence has no discernible impact on Global Warming). It is generally considered to be impossible to contain Global Warming, through a particular power generation technology alone, without significantly reducing the overall energy consumption levels of Western/ developed countries.

In view of its tiny percentage in the global energy basket, if nuclear power has to make considerable impact on global warming hundreds of nuclear power plants have to be commissioned every year for next few decades, even in those countries which have no nuclear power plants now. This is an impossible situation.

Also, the aggregate of energy consumed in the entire nuclear fuel cycle from the stage of mining till the nuclear wastes are safely discarded after hundreds of years is estimated to be so huge that a nuclear power plant can be a net consumer of energy than a producer. Hence its net impact on global warming seems to be negative in nature than being positive. But it is undeniable that the impact on the flora, fauna and the general environment during the mining and in the case of a nuclear accident is highly adverse.

Nuclear power scenario around the world

Whereas the proponents have been saying that nuclear power is essential for the energy security, the countries like Australia and New Zealand have managed their electrical power demand satisfactorily by consistently refusing to opt for nuclear power. Not a single reactor has been approved in US since Chernobyl disaster. Germany has decided to shut down all its reactors by 2022, whereas Japan has only 2 of its 54 reactors running now consequent to Fukushima disaster. Few other European countries also have shelved their plans to add reactors. It is worth noticing that the independent parliamentary panel of Japan, which studied Fukushima disaster, has termed it as a man made disaster.

In the background of all these issues, and keeping in view the low probability but huge consequence of a nuclear accident, the question to be asked of ourselves is whether nuclear power stations are critical for the development of all sections of our society, and whether we can achieve the adequate levels of Human Development Index without them.

The electricity industry experts say that there are enough non-nuclear power options, including measures such as efficiency improvement, Demand Side Management, energy conservation and renewable energy sources to meet our legitimate electricity demands on a sustainable basis.


The decision on Nuclear Power is too critical from the perspective of the overall welfare of our communities to be decided by few people in the nuclear establishment alone. The necessity for the active participation of all the stake holders within our society in informed decision making has become inviolable. In any such discussion on nuclear power in India a rational analysis on each of the following issues shall be of critical importance.

a) Despite huge investment in the nuclear industry since 1950s why the nuclear power capacity has not lived upto the tall claims of its Captains?

b) In the background of the fact that USA, USSR and Japan, which are all known to be the leaders in technological issues, and which are also generally associated with quality and safety issues, have failed to avert nuclear accidents, can India hope to have safe/accident free operation of all the existing/proposed reactors?

c) Can we say the decision by Germany and Japan to move away from the reliance on nuclear power is ill-conceived? Have, Australia and New Zealand which have shunned nuclear power from the beginning, suffered from lack of quality electricity supply?

d) With the projected cost at Jaitapur nuclear power park of about Rs 20 crore per MW, can nuclear power be said to compare favorably with coal power (about Rs. 7 Crore/MW), OR hydro power (about Rs. 8 crores/MW) OR solar power (about Rs. 20 crore /MW and which is coming down steeply)?

e) Are there better options to bridge the gap between demand and supply of electricity in a densely populated country such as India? Shall we not consider all the much benign options before we consider the nuclear power option, which has not gained popular acceptance even after 50 years of massive support?

f) Can we afford to accept the high risks (where ‘risk’ = ‘probability of nuclear accident occurring’ X ‘consequences of such an accident’) associated? How many of us are ready to live near a nuclear power plant/ nuclear facility knowing well the credible threat of radiation leakage?

g) In the background of three major nuclear accidents, and many near misses, can we afford to ignore the “precautionary principle” as enunciated by the international convention on bio-diversity?

h) Can we afford to ignore the caution by many reports/articles which have appeared in the media and by leading personalities such as Mikhail Gorbachev, UN Secretary General, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Dr. A Gopala Krishnan, Dr. Balram and others?

i) Whether the costs, which we need to pass on to the future generations (in safeguarding the nuclear waste for hundreds of years), justifiable since there will be no benefits to these generations? How many times more electricity will the nuclear fuel cycle consume as compared to the electricity it can generate in its economic life cycle of about 40 years?

j) What are all the direct and indirect costs to the society of nuclear power as compared to the benefits in a poor country such as India? Are such benefits unquestionably higher than the costs? Through an objective study of Costs & Benefits Analysis can we establish beyond reasonable doubts that every nuclear power plant in the country has more benefits than costs to the society?

k) Can we convincingly say that none of the provisions of our Constitution and various Acts of our Parliament will be violated by persisting with the nuclear power policy?

l) How have we taken the bitter experiences of nuclear establishments around the world into objective account while planning our own nuclear power policy?


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