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Nuclear power at what cost?
By Shankar Sharma



When the developed world is rethinking on its nuclear power policy, Indian government seems very keen to follow a dangerous path without fully exploring various cheaper and sustainable options of energy production.


People have serious reservations against nuclear plants after Fukushima disaster

In view of the protests against Kudnakulam Project, a holistic approach towards nuclear power has become essential. All the related issues from technical, economic, social, environmental and even inter-generational perspective need careful consideration keeping in view the long term implications of a nuclear power policy. Most importantly such a long term policy should not be pursued without people’s effective participation.

General safety concerns

Nuclear power plants are some of the most sophisticated and complex energy systems ever designed. Operating nuclear reactors contain large amounts of radioactive fission products which, if dispersed, can pose a direct radiation hazard, contaminate soil and vegetation, and be ingested by humans and animals. Human exposure at high enough levels can cause both short-term illness and death and longer-term death by cancer and other diseases.

Proponents argue that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source which reduces carbon emissions and can increase energy security if its use supplants a dependence on imported fuels. Proponents advance the notion that nuclear power produces virtually no air pollution, in contrast to the chief viable alternative of fossil fuel. They emphasize that the risks of storing waste are small and can be further reduced by using the latest technology in newer reactors, and the operational safety record in the Western world is excellent when compared to the other major kinds of power plants.

Opponents say that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. These threats include health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or sabotage, and the unsolved problem of radioactive nuclear waste. Critics do not believe that these risks can be reduced through new technology. They argue that when all the energy-intensive stages of the nuclear fuel chain are considered, from uranium mining to nuclear decommissioning, and the amount energy required keeping the nuclear waste safe for thousands of years, nuclear power is not a low-carbon electricity source.

Opponents say that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. These threats include health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or sabotage, and the unsolved problem of radioactive nuclear waste.

Economics of nuclear power

The new nuclear power plant being built in Europe is by EDF at Flamanville in France. It is now at least four years behind time and Euro 2.7 Billion over budget. The only other new nuclear plant being built in Europe is at Olkiluoto in Finland. Areva, the builder of this plant is reported to be four years late and Euro 2.6 Billion over budget. When nuclear power was initially propounded as a possible source of electricity, it was touted as so cheap that even metering its consumption was considered unnecessary. Today it is the seen as the costliest source of electrical power.

It is projected that at Jaitapura (Maharastra) the total cost of the proposed power capacity of 9,900 MW with 6 of EPR reactors will be about Rs. 200,000 Crores. This comes to about Rs. 20 Crores per MW. In comparison the cost of a coal power plant is about 7-9 crores/MW, and that of a hydel power plant is about Rs. 8-10 crores/MW. So, the capital cost aspect of nuclear power seems to be against the technology. If we also take into objective account the long term storage costs, insurance costs, government subsidies and all the associated environmental and health costs, the nuclear power projects will be much costlier than any other conventional power sources.

Long term storage of nuclear waste is a major issue requiring our attention. Even US, which has over 100 nuclear reactors and which depends upon nuclear power for about 20% of its electricity generation capacity, has not found a satisfactory answer to this problem.

In an article, Dr. Michael I. Niman, a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College has analysed the nuclear power cost: “The potential risk from a nuclear accident is so huge as to be commercially uninsurable. In fact, if the nuclear power industry were left to fend for itself in the free market, it would instantly collapse, turning upside-down once risk gets factored into any equation. The risk of catastrophe is so high, and the potential catastrophe so large, that the cost of insurance, assuming hypothetically that it was available, raises the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity off of the charts.”

There have been suggestions from Indian nuclear authorities that the safe storage of nuclear waste is technically feasible during its active life time. Is it really so, and even if it is so, what about the huge costs involved? The fact that a nuclear power plant cannot be commercially insured against catastrophic failures/losses says a lot about its commercial viability. In this regard there are credible and serious concerns that whereas the present generation may get the benefit of electricity from nuclear power, the future generations have to deal with all the risks and costs associated with the spent fuel. Is this fair or socially responsible?

Despite the huge increase in the total power generation capacity in India, from a meager 1,800 MW in 1950 to 177,000 MW in 2011, the total contribution of nuclear power to the total power generation capacity is about 2.7% only. This insignificant role of nuclear power in India’s power scenario, despite massive investment during the last 50 years, may indicate the realities of nuclear power in the Indian context.

Appropriateness of nuclear power to India

Since each of the three techno-economic super powers (USA, Russia and Japan) has experienced the nuclear emergency from their power plants, the very wisdom of relying on nuclear power technology as a safe and sustainable source power is being increasingly questioned. If such resource rich and knowledgeable communities 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?

While the nuclear establishment in the country has been making tall claims on the increased role of nuclear energy, the reality has been much less in successive decades after independence. Despite the huge increase in the total power generation capacity in India, from a meager 1,800 MW in 1950 to 177,000 MW in 2011, the total contribution of nuclear power to the total power generation capacity is about 2.7% only. This insignificant role of nuclear power in India’s power scenario, despite massive investment during the last 50 years, may indicate the realities of nuclear power in the Indian context.

Pro-nuclear advocates argue that nuclear power is a good option against Global Warming. One flawed assumption in this argument is that Global Warming can be contained without fundamentally changing the Western pattern of energy consumption, because nuclear energy is tiny contributor to energy mix world wide.

Additionally, the amount of energy consumed in the nuclear fuel cycle from the mining stage till its radio active emission gets reduced to safe levels after hundreds of years is estimated to be colossal. The contribution to atmospheric pollution at the stages of mining and processing, and radiation leaks to atmosphere are not inconsiderable. Taking all these facts into objective account it seems futile to argue that the nuclear power can make considerable contribution to mitigating the threat of Global Warming.

Costs & Benefits Analysis

In deliberating as to how much and what technology to be adopted in adding to the electricity generating capacity, there is a dire need to keep the overall costs and benefits to our society of such a policy in proper perspective. Any course of action we may take in order to meet the growing power demand in future will have deleterious impacts on our natural resources and environment, as also on the vulnerable sections of our society. Hence there is an imminent need to take utmost care in minimizing such impacts.

For example, if the decision makers take adequate care many benign and less costly options than Kudamkulam and Jaitapur nuclear power projects will become evident. It should be noted that the projected capacity of 2,000 MW from Kudamkulam, and 10,000 MW from Jaitapura projects will in reality may mean not much more than 1,100 MW and 6,500 MW respectively of real benefits to the society because of the inefficiency associated with these power plants and the power network. As opposed to such limited benefits with huge costs to the society, the alternatives available to our society are of much higher value.

Without considering various alternatives it may not be appropriate to establish nuclear power plants at horrendous costs to the society.

To read the detailed version of the article, click here:

 
Disclaimer:
The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.
 

Shankar Sharma  |  shankar.sharma2005@gmail.com

The author is a power policy analyst based in Shimoga district of Karnataka state. He remains passionate about renewable energy and environment.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note
 


 Other Articles by Shankar Sharma in
Physical Development  > Energy > Nuclear Energy

Energy or illusion?
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The overall cost of establishing and running a nuclear power plant, and long term burden to safe-keep the spent nuclear fuels for centuries, are enormous and can not be ignored by our society and government.

Still unclear on nuclear?
Friday, March 18, 2011

Considering the grave consequences of a nuclear emergency as seen in Japan, India will do better to do an objective analysis of all the costs and benefits to the society of nuclear power plants.
 
 Other Articles in Physical Development
 
 
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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

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Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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