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Atomic dream

Atomic dream
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First Published: Wed, Sep 12 2007. 12 19 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Sep 12 2007. 12 19 AM IST
It is now time to ask some hard questions about nuclear energy. Supporters of the Indo-US nuke deal, including this newspaper, recognize its potential to kick-start nuclear power generation in energy-starved India. But we also have to face up to tough questions on the real price of this power and the ability of the public sector to fund and manage ambitious plans for nuclear energy.
Energizing India with 20,000MW of nuclear power by 2020 remains a mirage at the moment, official enthusiasm notwithstanding.
First, a reality check. In the 38 years since first commercial fission of an atom in India, we have added 4,120MW of nuclear power, an average of 108MW per year. This leaves us with 15,880MW to be added in the next 13-odd years, or roughly 1,221.5MW per year. In terms of capacity addition, nuclear power contributed only 4.5% out of a total of 30,641MW during the 10th Plan. In the 11th Plan, too, nuclear capacity addition is expected to be around 4.5%. This will be around 3,160MW till 2012. That still leaves a capacity addition of some 12,720MW in the eight years from 2012.
This will be a ruthless forced march if India is to attain the goal by itself. It is unlikely to be achieved unless foreign and private players are allowed to play ball. Apart from the question of capabilities and infrastructural requirements for the task, the question of nuclear costs in India has never been resolved satisfactorily.
The matter of costs revolves around two themes that have been heatedly debated for some years now. One, on the comparative costs of nuclear vs other fuel power plants in terms of the rate of return on invested capital and the interest on that capital. Anti-nuclear activists dispute the method by which these are arrived at. The nuclear establishment in turn rebuts this. The second issue is the cost of heavy water leased by the department of atomic energy (DAE) to the Nuclear Power Corp. of India (NPCIL). Heavy water is used to cool nuclear reactors and control their speed.
It’s clear that there are big subsidies involved in the supply of heavy water produced by various units in India. A study by the nuclear power analyst M.V. Ramana, published in the Economic and Political Weekly, estimates the gap between actual cost of producing heavy water and what is charged from NPCIL as maybe as high as Rs1.2 crore per tonne. A 220MW plant needs an annual make-up of 7 tonnes of heavy water and a 540MW plant, about 17 tonnes. As output/capacity of plants rises, these subsidies have the potential to throw plant economics in disarray.
The factor that looms large in this story is the cussed resistance of our nuclear establishment to any transparency. One may argue what has that got to do with costs? A lot. Many projects that would not have enjoyed commercial success, have survived. Even the Comptroller and Auditor General has been told on occasion that such projects were launched for “strategic” and not commercial value! In the absence of factually well-informed debate, truth is the casualty. It has been so with our nuclear socialism.
The wrong lesson to learn here would be to abandon nuclear energy. There are countries that make heavy use of nuclear power. The United States is witnessing a rejuvenation of its nuclear power sector after decades of dormancy. Why should India step back? A more appropriate answer would be to gently induct the private sector, something that will lead to competition and cleaning of the nuclear stables. A regulator independent of the DAE must be created. In addition, the government must muster courage to throw some light on the functioning of the DAE. Taking these steps will ensure that private players are not throttled and our nuclear dreams are realized.
Private or public sector, what is the way forward for nuclear power? Write to us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Sep 12 2007. 12 19 AM IST