Should India consider phasing out nuclear power?

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    In Context

    • There are questions on whether nuclear power, with its attendant concerns on cost and safety, remains a relevant option for a future that is fossil-free, particularly in India.

    What is Nuclear Energy?

    • Nuclear energy is the energy source found in an atom’s nucleus, or core. Once extracted, this energy can be used to produce electricity by creating nuclear fission in a reactor through two kinds of atomic reaction: 
      • nuclear fusion and nuclear fission
        • During the latter, uranium used as fuel causes atoms to split into two or more nuclei. 
    • The energy released from fission generates heat that brings a cooling agent, usually water, to boil. 
    • The steam deriving from boiling or pressurised water is then channelled to spin turbines to generate electricity. 
      • To produce nuclear fission, reactors make use of uranium as fuel.

    Nuclear Power generation

    • India’s Nuclear Power:
      • India currently has 22 nuclear reactors with over a dozen more projects planned
        • All the existing reactors are operated by the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL).
      • Nuclear power currently comprises 3% of India’s total electricity generation & the current policy targets a three-fold rise in nuclear-installed capacity by 2032.
        • The present installed nuclear power capacity is set to increase from 6,780 MW to 22,480 MW by 2031 on progressive completion of projects under construction and accorded sanction.
    • Global Scenario of Nuclear Power Generation:
      • The first commercial nuclear power stations started operation in the 1950s.
      • Nuclear energy now provides about 10% of the world’s electricity from about 440 power reactors.
      • Nuclear is the world’s second largest source of low-carbon power (26% of the total in 2020). 
      • Over 50 countries utilize nuclear energy in about 220 research reactors. 
        • In addition to research, these reactors are used for the production of medical and industrial isotopes, as well as for training.

    Advantages of Nuclear Power

    • Efficient power supplier:
      • Nuclear power has higher energy density as it requires a lesser quantity of fuel than other sources of power like coal or natural gas based power plants. 
        • It is especially suitable for space missions which must not have bulky cargo, making it difficult for them to escape the earth’s gravity.
    • Co-existence with other power sources:
      • A lot of countries claim that nuclear power would be good to have in the mix because it is firm, dispatchable power, while wind and solar are intermittent or variable. 
        • Firm power is the power that can be sent to the electric grid to be supplied whenever needed.
    • Efficiency of newer machines:
      • Older designs required active cooling pumps, but the world now has systems which, even if the power fails, will gradually and gracefully control temperature, waste-heat, etc. 
      • The worst sort of accident in history, Chernobyl, was a design that will never get repeated again.
    • Advantage over coal-based thermal power plants:
      • Lower emissions:
        • India’s nuclear power sector is saving 41 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually, compared to emissions that would have been generated by equivalent electricity generation from coal-based thermal power plants.
      • Ash Waste – significant polluter:
        • Looking at many of the power plants in India, they have huge ash ponds. In some cases, the size of the ash pond is bigger than the size of the plant. 
        • Ash also contains many heavy metals, which are detrimental to the water source. 

    Challenges 

    • Construction costs & delay:
      • Building a nuclear power plant can be discouraging for stakeholders. Conventional reactor designs are considered multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects. 
      • High capital costs, licensing and regulation approvals, coupled with long lead times and construction delays, have also deterred public interest.
    • Impact on the environment:
      • The most significant impact on the environment stems from the destructive process of uranium mining. 
      • Batteries required for the reactors are very expensive and have an environmental impact.
    • Generation of radioactive waste
      • While no emissions are produced in nuclear energy generation, a bi-product of radioactive waste is developed. 
      • The waste must be stored in secure facilities to avoid polluting the environment. 
      • Radiation is not harmful in small quantities, but radioactive waste from nuclear plants is hazardous.
    • Safety issue:
      • Resistance to nuclear energy is also driven by fears about safety, nuclear proliferation, or some other concern. 
    • Global examples:
      • Germany has switched off its three remaining nuclear power plants as part of a long-planned transition toward renewable energy.

    Law governing nuclear liability 

    • Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC):
      • The umbrella Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) was adopted in 1997 with the aim of establishing a minimum national compensation amount
      • The amount can further be increased through public funds, (to be made available by the contracting parties), should the national amount be insufficient to compensate for the damage caused by a nuclear incident.
    • India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (CLNDA):
      • Even though India was a signatory to the CSC, Parliament ratified the convention only in 2016. 
      • To keep in line with the international convention, India enacted the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (CLNDA) in 2010, to put in place a speedy compensation mechanism for victims of a nuclear accident. 
      • The CLNDA provides for strict and no-fault liability on the operator of the nuclear plant, where it will be held liable for damage regardless of any fault on its part.
      • It ensures that compensation is available to the victims for nuclear damage caused by a nuclear incident or disaster and sets out who will be liable for those damages. 

    Way ahead

    • Nuclear power has numerous advantages and disadvantages, causing the contentious argument about whether to find alternatives or preserve the technology for future uses.
    • Nuclear power can be a highly destructive weapon, but the risks of a nuclear catastrophe are relatively low. 
      • It is important to remember that fossil fuels like coal and oil represent a much bigger threat and silently kill millions of people every year worldwide.

    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] What are the advantages & challenges of Nuclear Power Generation? What is the compensation mechanism for victims of a nuclear accident in India?