Derived from theology and philosophy, eschatology is the study of what are believed to be the last events of humanity. Eschatological passages are found in many places in the Bible (Matthew 24 and the Book of Revelation). In Hinduism, Kalki, the last avatar of Vishnu, foretells the end of the Kali Yuga. Hinduism links this eschatological timeline to declining morality (a point to note in India’ season of scams). In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, debate has centred around both these extreme notions—revelation and destruction.
What is the future for nuclear power?
Let me preface the discussion with the caveat that it is still an evolving debate. We do not yet fully know what failed in Fukushima and why. Whether the failure was scientific, technological, human or process-related will surely influence the outcome. It may take years before we can draw firm conclusions from the accident. In the meantime, it may benefit us to understand the issues and fault lines.
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In an interdisciplinary white paper on the future of nuclear power (update of the 2003 MIT Future of Nuclear Power, 2009) a star-studded cast of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors approached the issue from the point of view of reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. In their words, “the sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation”. They add “that new light water reactor plants meet the most strenuous safety standards”.
Nuclear reactors function on the principle of nuclear fission, relying on the heat produced from the splitting of a particle, usually an isotope of uranium, by catapulting another particle, usually a neutron, causing the first particle to split into almost equal parts and releasing energy in the form of radiation and heat (mostly the latter). This is used to heat water, which then spins turbines that produce electricity. When things go wrong, as they did in Fukushima, the reactor core has to be cooled (usually with water, gas or liquid metal).
Is it then a matter of technology and stringent safety standards? The 2003 MIT study recommended focusing on light water reactors and research and development on the high temperature gas reactor because of its potential for greater safety and efficiency of operation. Generation III and III+ reactors now in use around the world apply a passive cooling system that does not require electricity (unlike the Generation II Fukushima plant). These modern reactors are safer, simpler, smaller, cheaper and more modular than ever before, with Generation IV technology holding the potential for consuming nuclear waste.
In India, two 1,650 MWe European Pressurized Reactors (EPR) are on order from the French company Areva for the Jaitapur plant in Maharashtra. While they represent an evolution of an existing technology line, they are as yet untested. And Jaitapur is in an active seismic risk area. Ironically, when announced last year, the EPR technology was being criticized for having too many safety features, thus increasing its overall cost. Some of these, including four independent cooling systems, may become required aspects of evolving safety standards. The nuclear power authorities of Finland, France and the UK have claimed that the instrumentation and control systems of EPR have serious problems and need to be upgraded to ensure separation of operation and safety systems. So it is indeed required that India move cautiously on the technology and rethink the location of the facility if necessary.
India is a world leader in the thorium cycle, which will enable us to build thorium-based reactors. These reactors burn uranium while irradiating thorium (a non-fissile material) to produce uranium 233. Thorium is considered safer than uranium for waste disposal (residual radioactivity only for hundreds, not thousands of years) and is also more abundant than uranium (India has about 25% of the world’s deposits). These plants are also more judicious with water use. India’s long nuclear isolation has aided this path. Our recent nuclear cooperation with the US, France and other countries intends to procure enough uranium for sparking thorium reactors. Commendably, it is one area in which we are not simply aping the West.
In the wake of Fukushima, important questions about nuclear power safety are being raised. Neither knee-jerk negativism nor blind optimism seems appropriate. A cautious path that re-evaluates safety, fills the gap in uranium-plutonium and significantly leverages India’s strength in thorium appears to be the right strategy. The good news is that we are on that very path.
P.S.: “I know quite clearly what I want out of my life. Life and my emotions are the only things I am conscious of. I love the consciousness of life and I want as much of it as I can get”: Homi Jehangir Bhabha, father of India’s atomic energy programme.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org