Nuclear power is a contentious topic worldwide, particularly at this very moment with two countries-USA and North Korea making frank and frightening boasts of nuclear weaponry. Nuclear energy cannot help but come under the same suspicion. The history of atomic energy has been blotted with such misgivings because it is impossible to separate nuclear energy from nuclear weapons.
In India nuclear energy was once fervidly looked forward to as the fuel of the future. Now, the outlook is bleaker. As per India’s National Determined Contributors (NDCs), nuclear energy is looked forward to providing about one fourth of the energy requirements but on the ground reality attests to something different.
Even separating nuclear energy from nuclear warfare, the Chernobyl disaster and the Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown have spurred intense anti-nuclear protests that have been sustained over a number of years. Even accounting for the facts - that the Fukushima incident happened due to an unprecedented natural disaster, surviving the 9.0 magnitude earthquake to be brought down by the subsequent tsunami, and that the reactors meltdown did not cause any radiation deaths (although cleanup efforts did); there are many who feel that the remote likelihood of such ‘sudden death’ disasters is still too much of a chance, given the terrible impact possible.
Given the Kakrapur-1 reactor leak of 2016, it is not too farfetched that, in India at least, shoddy building or other problems will lead to a disaster that should theoretically not be an issue. Ironically many people have a ‘not in my backyard’ outlook—they approve of nuclear energy in principle but will protest against a nuclear plant in their neighbourhood or city.
Nuclear energy is relatively clean, produces very little fuel waste, is cost-effective, and reliable in grid connections in a way that neither wind nor solar energy can be as yet. So, are the fears of anti-nuclear protesters mere fear-mongering? Unfortunately, there is one large issue in relation to nuclear energy which cannot be argued away. Despite declarations that the amount of nuclear material that is waste is very small, it still requires disposal.
Currently the most popular method of disposal is burying it in radiation proof chambers and hoping that we will be able to solve the issue later with better technology. There is no reason we shouldn’t be able to do so, but the technology isn’t here now but nuclear waste is!
Burying it may not be a feasible solution for very long. So how long the countries be able to afford such archaic disposal technology given the fact that the waste remains radioactive for years and if by any chance gets exposed, what will it be its consequence to humans and the environment?
A Brief History of India’s Policy on Nuclear Energy
When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed, it was partly due to India’s instigation on international stands. Surprisingly, India refused to sign NPT along with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, citing moral objections. India’s stance was consistent for a period. Nuclear energy was good but nuclear weaponry was bad in all hands. The concept of a few nuclear power states holding the rest to ransom was one that was opposed. It was a convenient excuse, and powerful politically, to keep the option of nuclear weapons open for India, but it was also a valid point.
But with ever straining bilateral relations with Pakistan and China, India commenced nuclear testing. In 1974, India tested its first nuclear weapon and in 1998 India declared itself a nuclear weapon state. India’s first nuclear test led to the formation of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that banned India from importing nuclear material from the signatory countries in order to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Even despite NSG ban and growing international resilience against India, both scientists and policy makers continued to call for further nuclear tests, spurring on an arms race with Pakistan until the Non-nuclear Aggression Agreementcame into force in 1991. It took another decade from 1998 to 2008 until the NSG (with 48 members currently), on incitement by the United States, removed the ban on its members trading with India as the country has only about 2 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves and has to meet it’s energy requirement by tapping the nuclear potential.
Three years of negotiation from 2005 to 2008 led to a ratification of India–United States Civil Nuclear Agreement. China to this date continues to ban India’s application for the NSG, restricting India’s access to many civilian nuclear technologies.
The agreement between the USA and India cannot be simplified down to a few lines, but amongst other things, it required permanent safeguards for nuclear facilities that India has identified as "civil" and excluded the transfer of "sensitive" equipment and technologies, including civil enrichment and reprocessing items even under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. It must be noted that even this required an actual amendment to the USA’s own domestic Atomic Energy Act (1954) and could be considered a major victory for India because nuclear friends are thin on the ground. Even the otherwise friendly Russia has restricted trade with India until it is officially a part of the NSG.
This reliance on the USA has brought its own, not unexpected, issues. India has pushed through the Civil Nuclear Liability Act in 2010, which is wildly unpopular domestically, in an attempt to comply with American regulations as part of the final steps to activate the Indo-US nuclear agreement. Amongst other things, it places an upper ceiling on the liability of an operator given a nuclear accident or disaster in order to allow US reactor manufacturing companies to get insurance in their home states. The upper ceiling was exceedingly low, and remains so despite an increase (for nuclear reactors having power equal to 10 MW or above, liability ceiling is Rs. 1,500 crores and it is much lower in other cases). Despite much opposition, the Bill was passed into an Act by the Indian Parliament.
India’s NDC states: “India is promoting Nuclear Power as a safe, environmentally benign and economically viable source to meet the increasing electricity needs of the country. With a 2.2% share in current installed capacity, total installed capacity of nuclear power in operation is 5780 MW. Additionally six reactors with an installed capacity of 4300 MW are at different stages of commissioning and construction. Efforts are being made to achieve 63 GW installed capacity by the year 2032, if supply of fuel is ensured.”
As of mid-2017, nuclear capacity in India was about 6,800 MW with many projects sanctioned. However, to go from that to 63000 GW in another 15 years seems unlikely. Currently, two reactor sites with two reactors each are in construction in Rajasthan and Kakrapur, with 700 MWe (electricity output capability of the plant) for each. The Kakrapur plant was supposed to have a trial run at the beginning of this year and be in commercial operation by next year. Instead, it is stuck in construction.
It is unlikely, given the current outlook, that India would be able to extend its nuclear energy facilities by a great amount in the next 15 years, and fulfil its NDC obligations. Moreover, India’s need for outside technology and fuel along with the supervision of outside parties renders nuclear energy peculiarly vulnerable to outside influence. In fact, it is also possible that India is pushing through on nuclear energy precisely because of the desire for acquiring highly advanced nuclear weapons technology, as the push on nuclear energy otherwise is not entirely logical.
All in all, nuclear power could be a powerful force but politics renders it an insecure source for power, and one hurdle that does not seem likely to be overcome soon is nuclear waste disposal that remains radioactive even after years of present used scientific disposal methods. India in its quest to become an energy secure nation has to heavily invest in the technological prowess that will be required to handle nuclear waste. If nuclear waste is the price, it is possible that our next generation will suffer as much from the use of nuclear energy as we have suffered from many decades of use of fossil fuels.