Time to Realise India’s Nuclear Energy Excellence
With the world currently looking for alternatives to fossil fuel, Dheeraj Kumar Singh looks at India’s nuclear energy sector and its potential to drive the country’s dream of achieving net-zero carbon emission
At the recent global climate summit (COP 26 which was held in Glasgow, Scotland, the UK between 31 October 31 and November 12, 2021), each country shared their target of achieving net-zero carbon emission by completely shifting towards renewable sources of energy. This is difficult to envision without a nuclear renaissance around the world. In fact, to mitigate the threat of climate change and assuage energy demands – two of the 21st century’s most notable challenges – the expansion of nuclear energy is required.
Renewable plants are intermittent sources that are mostly limited by a lack of fuel (i.e., sun, wind or water). Thus, these plants need a backup power source like large-scale storage (not currently available at grid-scale) or they need to be backed by a more reliable energy source like nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is most reliable due to its high “capacity factor”. The capacity factor is a measure of how often a plant is running at maximum power in a year. For instance, a nuclear power plant that operates throughout the year will have a capacity factor of close to 100 per cent. Solar power, on the other hand, can only produce electricity when the sun is out. This restricts the capacity factor of solar plants close to 20 per cent. Even fossil fuel-based plants generate electricity with a capacity factor of 50 per cent. Thus, nuclear energy offers a more reliable option as compared to other non-fossil fuel options.
India has achieved tremendous improvement in the field of solar energy and it is reflected in the reduced cost of solar power at the point of generation. However, if we include the cost of measures to maintain grid stability, the total cost of energy generation from solar means will not be cheap. Nuclear energy is the only viable course to low-cost power with a balanced grid.
Realising the importance of nuclear technology, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), under the course charted out by Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha, carried out extensive scientific research, which has given a remarkable boost to the nuclear technology in the country. India is the first developing nation to have indigenously developed, demonstrated and deployed nuclear reactors for electricity generation. India has made a significant advent in nuclear technology with 23 nuclear reactors at present with a total capacity of 7480 MW including the recent 700 MW KAPP-3 reactor linked to the grid in early 2021. India is expected to have 22480 MW of nuclear capacity by 2031 with the operation of the new reactors, which are under construction. The Indian government is committed to reducing its carbon footprint by growing its nuclear power capacity and other non-fossil fuel energy in sync with its pledge under the Paris Agreement. India is also working on its three-stage nuclear power production programme envisioned by Dr Bhabha with the objective of utilising country’s vast reserve of thorium which will eventually make the nation self-reliant in energy generation.
Recently, the world has witnessed the investment by billionaires and leading technology companies in nuclear technology to build nuclear reactors to bridge the energy gap through cleaner means in the world. Moreover, it is believed that the small, factory-built, modular reactors will be cheaper, safer and in huge demand in the international market. This highlights the importance of nuclear energy in the near future as the billionaires and the billion-dollar companies have the sixth sense to anticipate the emerging areas of technology.
As global warming becomes more apparent, the nuclear option is regaining a place in the global debates on climate-friendly options. Such noted organisations as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have started pressing the importance of nuclear power to address major global challenges. India has also further accelerated its impetus to nuclear energy with a plan for pan-India installation of nuclear power reactors, which was earlier restricted to a few southern states.
To scale up nuclear energy in India, human resource for nuclear engineering is paramount. Recently, India has taken an important step in training in the field of nuclear technology by establishing the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP). The centre will train Indian and international participants and conduct nuclear-related courses in partnership with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The DAE has also established the Homi Bhabha National Institute (HBNI) which provides various academic programmes to accelerate the pace of basic research in frontline technology including nuclear technology. India’s pioneer nuclear research institute, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), is engaged in cutting-edge technology to harness nuclear energy for the benefit of mankind and also provides a year-long world-class training in nuclear science and engineering to new recruitees.
A firm footing in the technology of nuclear reactors is essential to boost the country’s nuclear submarine capability. India has successfully developed a Submersible Ship Ballistic Missile Nuclear (SSNS) class nuclear-powered submarine, which has enhanced the operational and stealth capabilities of the Indian Navy. The nuclear reactor of the submarines is known as the crown jewels of nuclear technology and its imperative for India to keep investing in the nuclear sector to master such technology and achieve nuclear leadership.
India frequently carries out high-level internal evaluations of the safety of all its nuclear installations, for which there is a separate department – the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). The board oversees and enforces safety in all nuclear operations in India and its applications.
Besides these, nuclear technology is also needed for producing radioisotopes. In relevance to this, India has started the process of setting up the reactor in public-private partnership (PPP) mode dedicated to the production of radioisotopes needed in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other diseases. India also employs its nuclear technology in food preservation and to develop various crop varieties having improved characteristics like higher yield and high disease resistance.
In India, numerous institutions, under the umbrella of DAE, are involved in harnessing the power of atoms to contribute to nation-building with the motto – “Atoms in the service of the nation”.