Nuclear Energy: Way Forward for Developing Countries?

Shiv Sethi, Sanhati.Com

The Fukushima accident has revived the debate on the safety of nuclear energy. The accident occurred at a time when nuclear power was making a comeback as a viable energy source after decades of stagnation or slow growth. In the 1980s, the Chernobyl accident and the issue of safe disposal of nuclear waste acted to dampen enthusiasm for this option. Nuclear power is thought to have made a comeback in the wake of increasing awareness about the impact of fossil fuel-based energy production in causing deleterious climate change.

While Fukushima has evoked memories of Chernobyl, the issue of nuclear energy was always far more complex than its safety. In particular, the relevant questions in this regard—especially its suitability for developing countries like India—continue to be: (a) Is such a form of energy needed?, (b) Is nuclear energy economically viable?, (c) Is it safer than would be indicated by the recent Fukushima disaster?

Economic viability of nuclear energy

Nuclear energy is primarily used to produce electricity. Currently there are 440 nuclear reactors around the world, producing 372 thousand MW, which amounts to around 7 % of installed capacity and results in 14 % of electricity production in the world. In addition, 55 reactors are in construction which are projected to generate 50 thousand MW of electricity. An IAEA report [1] projects that nuclear energy will generate between 550–800 thousand MW of electricity by the year 2030. India (2.2 % in 2009, [1]) and China (1.9 %, [1]) produce a negligible fraction of electricity using nuclear energy.

The issue of the cost of nuclear energy should be divided into two: the initial capital cost and the cost of operation. For countries like France which already produce over 70% of their electricity using nuclear power, the germane issues are linked to the cost of operation, which usually means ready availability of nuclear fuel (mostly Uranium-235) at affordable prices. India generates less than 3 % of its electricity at present with nuclear energy. For nuclear energy to become an important source of electricity production, India is planning to build a large number of nuclear reactors. For India, therefore, it is the capital cost of building the reactor which is more relevant.

In a well-cited study in 2003, an interdisciplinary group at MIT, USA, investigated the potential role of nuclear power as an important future source of electricity production across the world; they updated their conclusions in 2009 [2]. According to this study, electricity production using nuclear energy was up to 30 % costlier than coal- and gas-based electricity production largely owing to huge capital cost in building nuclear plants (see Figure 9 of [3] for a break-up of capital and fuel cost for coal, gas, and nuclear-based electricity production). Their estimates showed that the overnight capital cost increased by a factor of two in five years (2002–2007) from 2000 dollars/kW to 4000 dollars/kW. The authors concluded that nuclear energy is unlikely to be an economically viable option unless carbon taxes are imposed on electricity production using coal or gas. Other studies in the last decade also agree with the main conclusions of the MIT report [4].

While the capital costs of nuclear power are far higher than other conventional forms, the operational costs, based on a range of potential Uranium, coal and, gas prices, could be lower (e.g [2]). This also means that even though nuclear power might remain a viable option for countries which already produce a fair fraction of their electricity using nuclear fuel, it is not a particularly good choice for countries planning to expand their nuclear capability by building new nuclear plants.

There are other reasons why nuclear energy might not serve developing countries well. As noted above, the overnight capital cost of building nuclear plant nearly doubled in less than five years from 2002 to 2007. This is the incurred cost if the reactor could be built ‘overnight’. To this cost should be added the cost of servicing loans contracted to build the reactor; this yields the final all-in cost. Even if the overnight cost could be reliably computed, the all-in cost is extremely sensitive to the role of financial markets in ensuring such a long term loan. The aforementioned MIT study computed the final cost assuming that such long-term loans could be obtained at 10 % per annum, as opposed to building coal-based plants where shorter term capital cost was assumed to be 6.5 %.

Moody Investor Service estimated the all-in cost to be conservatively between 5000 and 6000 dollars/KW (2007 dollar) in 2007. According to authors of the study: “While we acknowledge that our estimate is only marginally better than a guess; it is a more conservative estimate than current market estimates” [5] Other estimates give the all-in cost to be almost twice as high, projecting the cost of nuclear-based electricity to be as much as 2.5 times higher than the MIT study [6], underlining the great uncertainty in making such future predictions.

All the estimates cited in the foregoing have come from Western countries. It could be argued that costs might be lower in developing country owing to smaller labour costs. It is far from clear this putative cost-saving is not offset by other considerations: more onerous loan conditions, import of technology, development of important infrastructure, e.g. roads, ports, etc. For instance, the projected cost of electricity from the proposed 10000 MW Jaitapur plant in India is Rs. 4/kw-h, which is between 0.08–0.09/kw-h US dollars, in good agreement with estimates of the MIT and other studies [9].

In addition, nuclear reactors have also been notorious for delays in construction, leading to cost overruns of as high as a factor of three in some cases (see e.g. [6] for history of such delays in the US; also Figure 7 of the reference [3]). As the capital cost of building the nuclear plant accounts for nearly 80 % of the total, one can easily gauge the impact of these delays on the cost of electricity production.

One of the most important unknowns regarding nuclear reactors is the cost of decommissioning the nuclear plant. Nuclear plants typically operate for between 30 to 40 years. As this time scale is not very different from the total duration of nuclear reactors on earth, and as the total duration of dismantling of a nuclear plant could take more than 50 years, not many plants have been successfully decommissioned. And therefore the total cost of such a venture remains highly uncertain. Ongoing efforts to decommission plants could give us a rough estimate of what to expect. In France, decommissioning of Brennilis Nuclear Power Plant, a relatively small 70~MW plant, has already cost over 480 million Euros, over 20 times the initial forecast. Even at the high capital cost at the present, such a plant would cost roughly 400 million dollars to build (using Moody’s estimates discussed above). Or it has already cost more than 1.5 times this amount to dismantle the plant! While this might be an extreme case, the minimum cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant is likely to a large fraction of the cost of building it (e.g. [7]; page 25 of [6]).

Another additional cost in nuclear power generation is disposal of nuclear waste, which remains highly radioactive for thousands of years. It is even harder to estimate this expenditure in terms of money or long term social cost [7]:

On average each plant will produce 30 tonnes of waste a year and this waste can be radioactive for up to 250, 000 years. The lowest available estimate for the storage of 1 tonne of nuclear waste is US $35,000 per year, so that’s a minimum cost per facility of over US $1 Million per year for the conceivable future.

Developing countries neither have the technology nor the wherewithal to construct nuclear plants, dismantle them, and effectively dispose off the waste; admittedly, the latter two issues have never been satisfactorily addressed [2]. For instance, India consistently runs current account deficits so the only way India can afford to expand nuclear power is to borrow long term from international markets. Given the volatile nature of this funding, governments across the world step in to provide counter-guarantees on such loans or in some cases provide a part of the loan (see e.g. [8]). As most nuclear power plants are built by private companies and run for profit, with captive markets for electricity ensured by governments in most cases, this constitutes a classic case of the government running the risk and subsidizing the private sector over a very long term. In other words, developing countries would be forced to pay foreign companies with capital borrowed at high and variable cost from international finance, to produce electricity at a cost higher than other options which are at least currently available to them.

In sum, the cost of nuclear energy remains high and very uncertain: construction costs, borrowing cost of long-term capital, cost overruns owing to recurring delays, and long term investment in decommissioning and waste disposal. All these considerations take the shine off this otherwise attractive alternative for electricity production.

To this can be added the potential volatility of the availability of nuclear fuel (to be discussed below) and the cost incurred by the society, in case of accidents, to support this option of energy generation.

Does India need nuclear energy?

Continual access to affordable sources of energy is one of the main drivers of economic growth. To meet this goal, most countries around the world have chosen an ‘energy-mix’. An energy-mix typically contains many possible sources of energy that can be viably developed or imported to sustain growth. For electricity generation in India, this mix contains conventional sources like coal, hydel power, nuclear energy, and unconventional sources like solar and wind power. There has been increasing realization across the world that exploitation of hydel power can have damaging long term ecological impact. Coal-based electricity generation, and to a smaller extent gas, could cause undesirable climate changes, unless carbon sequestering, still in its infancy, could be successfully achieved at a reasonable cost. Non-conventional sources are generally considered clean but it is far from clear they could retain this privilege if they are scaled up to provide a fair fraction of the electricity supply. For instance, solar energy could be clean but mass production of solar panels could be highly toxic (see e.g. [10]).

In light of these facts, nuclear energy sometimes look like an attractive addition to this energy-mix. Many arguments are explicitly or implicitly forwarded to support his claim. There is little doubt that nuclear energy generation is far more efficient per unit mass of the nuclear fuel, by roughly a factor of a million. First, this might mean that unlike environmentally destructive coal mining or gas extraction technologies (e.g. even the most modern technologies bank on methods like destroying entire hill-sides to extract coal as is occurring in West Virginia or the increasingly popular method of ‘fracking’ to extract gas from underground reservoirs), the mining of nuclear fuel might be preferable. However, it is far from clear that such is the case (e.g. [11).

Nuclear energy is highly water intensive. Nuclear reactors use 25–50% more water than equivalent fossil fuel plants (e.g. [7). Even during an extreme emergency (e.g. a severe drought) this water resource cannot be withdrawn for not only during the normal operation of the plant but for decades after the nuclear plant has stopped generating electricity, as explained in the section on nuclear safety below. In other words, the nuclear plants make an excessive demand on this vital and sometimes scarce resource.

Second, the almost unlimited availability of nuclear fuel, in particular Uranium 235, is often implicitly assumed. According to estimates based on Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), US, reports [12]:

Most of the 2.8 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity generated worldwide from nuclear power every year is produced in light-water reactors (LWRs) using low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. About 10 metric tons of natural uranium go into producing a metric ton of LEU, which can then be used to generate about 400 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, so present-day reactors require about 70,000 metric tons of natural uranium a year.

According to the NEA, identified uranium resources total 5.5 million metric tons, and an additional 10.5 million metric tons remain undiscovered—a roughly 230-year supply at today’s consumption rate in total.

In other words, the present identified supply will last 70 years at the present rate of consumption. A factor of two increase in nuclear-based electricity generation by 2030, as is being envisaged, would mean that these reserves will last 35 years, less than the age of a nuclear reactor. Even if the undiscovered deposits are included, a factor of two increase in nuclear power is barely possible for the next 100 years. It is of course expected that more uranium would be discovered or financially-viable technologies might be developed to extract Uranium from Uranium-poor deposits or even from seawater. A corollary to this transition might be that nuclear energy will lose its billing as a clean source. At present, the carbon footprints of nuclear energy are less than fossil fuel but greater than other unconventional sources. As low-grade deposits are exploited to mine Uranium, Uranium’s carbon footprints might become comparable to natural gas by 2050, as suggested by a study [13].

However, it is impossible to reliably attach a cost to either undiscovered deposits or future untested technologies. One such untested technology is fast breeder reactors. India has been a major proponent of this technology. And even though this technology is no longer used in most of the world, India continues to pursue it without notable success. Such reactor use either Uranium-238, over 99 % of the naturally occurring Uranium, or Thorium, an element more abundant than Uranium on earth. India is Uranium poor but Thorium rich.

The MIT study [2] cites a slightly lower estimate of the undiscovered Uranium deposits at 7.5 million metric tonnes. They re-iterate their 2003 conclusions in their 2009 update: “We believe that the world-wide supply of uranium ore is sufficient to fuel the deployment of 1000 reactors over the next half century”, which is in essential agreement with the estimates based on NEA projection.

The minimum one could infer from this state of affairs is that Uranium prices are likely to become even more volatile, following a sharp rise since 2000, as countries expand their nuclear capacity. In all likelihood, the sharp rise in Uranium prices will far precede its actual need, as the experience since 2000 partly attest to, owing to speculation led by conglomerates that control and produce Uranium. And this would be an additional cost uncertainty for coal-rich but Uranium-poor countries like India and China.

As noted above India produces less than 2.7 % of its electricity (4700 MW) using nuclear power. It is by far the least important source of electricity generation in India, less than renewable energy resources like Solar and wind power which contribute over 10 %. By 2032, India expects to expand this capacity to 63000 MW [14]. The overnight cost of building these reactor using the current estimates of the MIT study alone runs into more than 250 billion dollars. If the real cost of constructing nuclear plants shows an increase typical of the past ten years, then this cost could well exceed a trillion dollars. This whopping amount provides a suitable backdrop and perspective to the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005, which set India on the ambitious path of rapid growth of nuclear power. This deal allowed India, with the US backing, to join the nuclear club without signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT); it also won the approval of the Uranium producing countries of the world. The nuclear deal was celebrated by the Indian media and hailed as a giant stride on India’s way to inevitable glory. Not unexpectedly, no one mentioned the Western nuclear companies and banks, along with their local potential partners in India, salivating over the prospect of such lucrative and relatively risk-free investment opportunity.

The track record of nuclear power production in India is extremely poor. In 1970 it was projected that India might be producing more than 40000 MW of electricity by 2000, but the actual production was closer to 2500 MW. And this in spite of the fact that nuclear energy generation has received unlimited financial and other support from the government for all these years. The installed capacity of wind-generated electricity in the state of Tamil Nadu is more than the amount of electricity generated by nuclear energy in India at the present! While wind-power generation barely existed two decades ago, the nuclear power was projected to be one of the main sources of electricity generation since Nehruvian era. If the past performance is any indication of the future, huge cost overruns caused by delays are likely to be the order of the day as India attempts to expand its nuclear power capacity.

Electricity production in India is presently increasing at a rate of roughly 3.5 % per annum. If this could be sustained over the next 20 years, nuclear energy, even if the highly ambitious projections could be realized, would still contribute less than 20 % of the total electricity production in 2032.

In the present energy-mix of India, nuclear energy’s performance has been the least impressive, both in terms of negligible contribution and astronomical costs. There is little to suggest this pattern will change in the future.

Is nuclear energy safe?

The safety of nuclear energy is normally the most debated issue regarding its viability. Nuclear accidents serve to remind everyone that when things go wrong with nuclear energy they go terribly wrong.

The hallmark of nuclear energy is radioactivity. It is this property of the Uranium-235 nucleus that allows it to be broken into lighter nuclei when bombarded with slow neutrons, generating energy with an efficiency more than one million times higher than conventional forms of energy based on chemical reactions. In a radioactive decay, a nucleus is transformed into other nuclei accompanied by the emission of high energy particles. These energetic particles can penetrate human body and destroy normal cells, potentially leading to long term adverse effects on the body.

The radioactivity of a nuclear isotope is measured in terms of its half life. Half life is the time over which half the nuclei of a certain isotope will have decayed. The half life of the main nuclear fuel Uranium-235 is close to 700 million years. However, many of the radioactive isotopes produced during the power generation (or explosion of a nuclear weapon), have much smaller half lives, e.g. Iodine-131 (8 days), Cesium-137 (30 years), Plutonium-239 (24000 years). To get a sense of these numbers, Iodine-131, which might leak during a nuclear accident, could be roughly 35 billion times more harmful than the initial nuclear fuel. This also means that the harm caused by Iodine-131 will last for a shorter time, roughly a few times the half life of the isotope. However, Cesium-137 will continue to contaminate the eco-system for more than 30 years with a level of radioactivity roughly 25 million times more than Uranium-235. Plutonium-239 will remain a dangerous contaminant for tens of thousands of years.

In other words, the nuclear waste is far more detrimental to human health than the naturally occurring radioactivity of the isotopes of Uranium. Nuclear reactors do not only produce this waste but store it at the site of the reactor for a period of between 30 to 100 years, to allow the radioactivity of the short half life isotopes to die out, before they could be moved to locations suitable to deal with the radioactivity of the long half life isotopes. During this period the nuclear waste has to be continuously cooled in pools of water. This highly dangerous waste continues to accumulate at these sites for decades and needs to be cooled even after the reactor has stopped producing electric power. During the Fukushima disaster, the cooling at the waste storage site of reactor 4 failed, leading to an explosion which ejected an unknown quantity of the nuclear waste into the atmosphere [15]:

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) did the math: If Fukushima’s Reactor No. 4 operated for 35 years and produced 30 tons of irradiated fuel per year and each ton is equivalent to 24 times the amount of cesium-137 produced by the Hiroshima bomb, then each fuel pool could contain on the order of 24,000 times the amount of cesium-137 produced by the Hiroshima bomb, if all the produced irradiated fuel remains in the fuel pool.

How common is a nuclear power station accident? According to researchers [16]:

We have identified 33 serious incidents and accidents at nuclear power stations since the first recorded one in 1952 at Chalk River in Ontario, Canada.

The information is partially from the International Atomic Energy Authority – which, astonishingly, fails to keep a complete historical database – and partially from reports. Of those we have identified, six happened in the US and five in Japan. The UK and Russia have had three apiece.

But how serious are they? The International Atomic Energy Authority ranks them using a special International Nuclear Events Scale (INES) – ranging from ‘anomaly’ to ‘major accident’, numbered from 1 to 7.

Only two accidents—Chernobyl and Fukushima—have so far been ranked at level 7. Many experts believe Fukushima to be worse than Chernobyl [17]:

…my point of view, it is not equal to Chernobyl, it is way worse, because we are, like, facing three reactors totally, or partly, destroyed. A fourth reactor has a problem with the spent fuel, which had a huge explosion. And when we did the calculations like three weeks ago, we figured out that, depending of course about the spread between the three reactors, each of these reactors could be rated as a INES scale 7 accident, because the INES scale does not even consider a multiple accident, what we are seeing here in Fukushima. So, that is way worse than what we’ve seen in Chernobyl. Another point there, which is very important, so in Chernobyl was more or less rural area around the reactor. But Fukushima is in a densely populated area, so millions of people are living around it. So, even that makes it worse and more difficult to manage.

Even as the Fukushima reactor continues to leak harmful radiation, the total economic cost of Fukushima accident is likely to run into hundreds of billions of dollars (a US study estimated the cost of a Chernobyl-type accident to be over 300 billion dollars [18]), more than the construction cost of all the nuclear power reactors in Japan! The human and social cost will also be considerable. An area of roughly 30 miles around Fukushima plant will be inhabitable for decades. High level of radiation and contaminated food products have been found outside this exclusion zone (e.g. [19]), even as far as Tokyo, more than 200 kms from Fukushima. A recent article noted the plight of the school children of Fukushima in the aftermath of the disaster [20]:

75 % of Fukushima’s 300,000 children are going to schools that are so contaminated they would be radiation control areas in nuclear plants where individuals under 18 are not legally allowed. The Japanese government won’t evacuate people unless radiation levels are four times what triggered evacuation in Chernobyl

Even as the scale of Fukushima disaster continues to unfold, the corporate press and nuclear technocracy across the world has gone into overdrive to downplay the impact of the such a disaster. India’s nuclear establishment dubbed it a ‘chemical accident’ [21]. A BBC article juxtaposed Chernobyl and Fukushima with ‘natural radioactivity’ [21]:

…few in the west of England seem concerned at the natural radiation they are exposed to from the earth in the form of the gas radon, even though it is estimated to lead to more than 1,000 cancer deaths a year in this country.

…It has been estimated that 17 million were exposed to significant radiation after Chernobyl and nearly 2,000 people have since developed thyroid cancer having consumed contaminated food and milk as children.

…This is very serious, but nothing like the impact that had been expected, and a UN report identified psychological problems as the major consequence for health.

…Radiation does, however, feel acceptable when used in benign circumstances such as medical imaging…Because more than 70 million CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.

This is a perfect example of a logical fallacy compounded by selective choice of data. Even if humans die of conditions natural to their habitat (e.g. in West England) or, with a very low probability, during a medical procedure undertaken to diagnose a decease (C T scan), it doesn’t follow they deserve to be exposed to such conditions for eminently avoidable reasons. The number of deaths attributable to Chernobyl disaster remain highly uncertain (for detailed discussion and other references see [22]):

A UNSCEAR report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation at 64 as of 2008. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests it could reach 4,000 civilian deaths, a figure which does not include military clean-up worker casualties. A 2006 report predicted 30,000 to 60,000 cancer deaths as a result of Chernobyl fallout. A Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more. A Russian publication, Chernobyl, concludes that 985,000 premature cancer deaths occurred worldwide between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl.

Such large variations in various estimates is partly because of differing choice of ‘control sample’ of population, uncertainty in understanding the impact of exposure to low level of radiation [23], difference in methodology, etc. Clearly, there is a lot more to nuclear radiation exposure than psychological fear. In addition to nuclear accidents, workers at nuclear plants could be exposed to high level of radition. For instance, Reuters investigators found that Fukushima reactor (along with Tarapur reactor in India) was among few of the most dangerous plants in the world for excessive exposure to radiation at the plant [29].

The important role governments play in fostering the growth of nuclear energy has been noted above. This growth has been coterminous with the rise of nuclear weapons across the world. In fact, the very genesis of nuclear-based electricity production is owed to its utility in providing enriched Plutonium to the weapon program. A 1952 US government report noted (as cited in [24]):

In last year’s report, we announced that our companies, as one of four non-governmental groups, had entered into an agreement with the Atomic Energy Commission to study the practicability of applying nuclear energy to the production of power. The first year’s study has been completed and a report has been completed and a report has been made to the Commission. Included in the report were preliminary designs of two dual-purpose reactor plants. By “dual-purpose” we mean that the plants would be primarily for the production of power but would also would produce plutonium for military purposes as a by-product. In our judgment, these plants…would be justified from an economic standpoint only if a substantial value were assigned to the plutonium produced

A document from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the premier institute of Nuclear energy research in the US, in 1981, noted [24]:

There is no technical demarcation between the military and civilian reactor and there never was one. What has persisted over the decades is just the misconception that such a linkage does not exist

In decades following the inception of nuclear energy, these two—one ostensibly peaceful and other destructive and much derided—have developed in parallel across the world.

Indian nuclear energy program was directly linked to the development of nuclear weapons. While the fast breeder reactor technology has often been touted as the future of power generation by the Indian nuclear establishment, its only success consisted in producing Plutonium for the weapons program, as indeed was the case across the world before these reactors were considered unsafe and shut down in large parts of the world.

As nuclear weapon program is linked to national security issues, nuclear power generation has also enjoyed the same protective umbrella. This protection has taken several forms: (a) nuclear power generation was pursued in spite of it not being economically viable with large government subsidies , as clearly noted by the US government report cited above, (b) governments enact laws to enable this growth, (c) government indemnify nuclear power companies from financial repercussion in case of an accident. For example, in India, the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010 caps the liability of nuclear operators at only Rs 500 crore (100 million dollars). The central government would be responsible for liabilities above this amount. It should be noted that such bills were unnecessary in the past in India as the government itself operated all nuclear plants, and therefore was the default insurer in case of an accident. The 2010 bill is specifically designed to welcome the entry of private nuclear power companies to Indian markets, following the lead of similar laws across the world. (For a critique of Price-Anderson Act, enacted to 1957 by the US government to limit liability of nuclear companies, see the following deposition of Ralph Nader to the US house of representatives [18].) The pall of secrecy that surrounds nuclear weapon program also extends to the presumably peaceful use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.

The issue of the safety of nuclear energy for electric power generation cannot be separated from its historic and ongoing role in enabling the development of nuclear weapons. The adoption of nuclear power generation in the energy-mix could be seen as a deliberate political manoeuvre to lend it respectability by isolating it from its essential role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Most reports on the viability of nuclear energy for power generation recognize its potential role in weapons’ program (e.g. MIT report [2]). But the geo-political situation that informs this realization is generally turned on its head. While the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Western countries is considered a historic, natural condition barely worthy of a comment, development of such form of energy in the developing world is viewed with suspicion. Tight control of fissile material in developing countries is advocated to prevent it from getting into the hands of terrorists, but the obvious fact that many countries develop such programs as a defense mechanism to ward off threats of Western countries is overlooked. Local rivalries, e.g. India and Pakistan, also cause nuclear weapon proliferation. However, the cynical move by the US to welcome India into the nuclear club while rebuffing similar recognition for Pakistan cannot improve this state of affairs. Iran, an NPT signatory, is continuously accused of pursuing a nuclear weapons program and threatened with reprisal, which might include the use of nuclear weapons! In short, the present political world order is hardly conducive to nuclear non-proliferation. And by corollary this conclusion extends to the development of nuclear energy for ostensibly peaceful purposes as well.

Nuclear energy: a solution for India?

In India, roughly 27 % of electricity is lost in transmission and distribution, one of the highest in the world [25]. For comparison, the corresponding loses in China and Bangladesh are less than 9 % and the average for OECD countries is less than 7 % [26]. Worse still, the lost fraction increased from less than 20 % to over 27 % from 1990 to 2004. If India could match the performance of its neighbours, its electricity generation needs could drop by close to 20 %!

This can be achieved by improving transmission and distribution network. The distribution network accounts for most of the loses and could presumably be improved by technologies available in India, efficient load balancing and by preventing recurrent transformer breakdowns, in addition to adopting new technologies like Smart grid and Bloom box [27].

This will also require investment on a large scale. But clearly any investment to save energy is preferable at the present juncture when continuing evidence of the harmful impact of climate change is mounting and the long term future supply of fossil fuel remains uncertain. As a large fraction of this investment is likely to be based on local resources and far less capital intensive than nuclear energy generation, it would clearly be preferrable to highly capital intensive technologies of uncertain returns. In addition, such a venture might generate far greater number of technical jobs in the local economy, resulting in greater overall economic development.

The resistance against nuclear energy in India has escalated in the aftermath of Fukushima and at present is being led by protests against nuclear power plants in Jaitapur, Maharashtra and Koondakulum, Tamil Nadu. Such protests are often portrayed in the mainstream press as irrational fears lacking objectivity, even though they are based on valid consideration of the safety of such plants and over-exploitation of scarce resources like water [28]. On the other hand, in light of the foregoing, far weaker subjective arguments are extended to support nuclear energy, which serve to conceal, or even exalt, vested interests and their collusion.

Nuclear energy might deservedly make a comeback one day. It could be argued that no source of energy comes without cost to the ecosystem and the society. At present, it is far from clear that nuclear technology can provide the level of safety societies expect; and it is neither economically viability nor a particularly important source of energy for developing countries. In India, for more than fifty years, the nexus of government bodies, a bureaucratic clique linked to scientific establishment beholden to nuclear energy program, and a section of the state-controlled media has served to nurture the myth of wondrous virtues of nuclear energy, while hiding its obvious failures. The Indo-US nuclear deal opened the doors for the private sector from across the world, backed ably by corporate-run media, to join this alliance. This ’super-alliance’ will further undermine any genuine attempt to objectively understand the role of nuclear energy in the future energy-mix of India.



[1] Energy, Electricity and nuclear power estimates up to 2050, IAEA report, 2009



[4] see e.g.,_coal,_gas_generating_costs.png




[8] for a brief discussion on Energy Bill in the US in 2007

















[25] This doesn’t include theft of electricity in India. When it is included the loses could be over 40 % in some cities ( In this regard it should be borne in mind that this ‘theft’ only means electricity used but not paid for. While objectionable, it is not an absolute lose of electric power to the society

[26] for data up to 2004

[27] I wish to thank Professor D. P. Sen Gupta, retired professor of electrical engineering at Indian Institute of Science, for explaining to me how changes in electricity distribution grid could partly achieve this goal. Some of these aspects are discussed in his paper on rural electrification:

[28] For a detailed discussion on the ongoing struggle at Koondakoolum see


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