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EU’s nuclear option for sustainability makes sense for India, too

The move clears the decks for US and other foreign companies to invest in India’s potentially vast nuclear energy market. Photo: MintPremium
The move clears the decks for US and other foreign companies to invest in India’s potentially vast nuclear energy market. Photo: Mint

A decision by the EU to adopt nuclear energy as a mainstream green technology would give a boost to nuclear energy across the world. India has to complete its fast-breeder reactor programme that uses, as its starting block, thorium available in Kerala’s monazite sands

The European Commission has proposed to recognise nuclear energy as a green technology to combat climate change and to spend some $622 billion over the next 30 years on its development. This has alarmed the Greens in Germany and Austria, warmed the cockles of French hearts and set the stage for an intra-European Union row over how to attain net-zero by 2050.

To those who view climate change and the environment as theology, going nuclear to turn green might seem apostasy. But to most normal people, embracing largescale nuclear power is the most sensible way to a sustainable energy future.

Sure, the world has made big commitments to substitute renewable power for fossil-fuel based energy. Now, the trouble with renewable power is that it is intermittent, generated when the sun burns bright or when the wind blows strong. The power that is generated from solar and wind plants can be stored, sure enough. It can be stored in giant batteries, or as pumped hydropower or even as green hydrogen or molten salt. But storage costs money, big time. Hence the appeal of nuclear energy.

One basic fact that has to be appreciated about apparently cheap renewable power from the sun and the wind is that appearances can be deceptive. Since storage large enough to do away with conventional power is far away, even when renewable power is generated in robust quantities and no power is drawn from conventional sources, the system has to pay for the availability of conventional thermal plants. Power tariff has two parts: the cost of available generation capacity and the cost of the fuel when it is burnt to generate power. So, right now, when we use renewable power, we pay for the renewable power plus the cost of conventional power minus the fuel charge, plus the cost of integration and keeping the grid stable when unstable green power is fed into it from myriad, scattered sources.

Nuclear power produces no carbon during generation. It is a reliable, stable form of power supply, ideally complemented with hydropower for peaking. Europe already depends on nuclear power for a quarter of its generation capacity. It is ideal as a replacement for dirty coal and gas. While gas is classified as a green energy source under the EU’s new taxonomy, gas releases about half the carbon that coal does.

But is nuclear power safe, or affordable? The answer is in the affirmative, notwithstanding Chernobyl and Fukushima. The plants at these sites were based on old designs. Newer generation plants eliminate operational risk almost totally, thanks to the lessons learnt from Chernobyl and Fukushima. Risks of proliferation, and of disposal of the spent fuel remain, although these two can also be fixed, to a certain extent, using technology.

Two new kinds of advances are being made in nuclear power technology. One is the capacity to produce what are called small, modular reactors, smaller than 300 MW in capacity. These can be made at a factory, transported to the site and installed fast. When you want more power, you add another module. Standardized size and capacity lower costs, in comparison to custom-built conventional reactors that have to be built in situ.

The other advance is in nuclear fusion. Or rather in the production of super-powerful magnets. Nuclear fusion is triggered at very high temperatures and, when some mass is converted into energy when two nuclei are fused together, even more heat is generated, attaining temperatures of multiple million degrees centigrade. There is no physical material in which the temperamental plasma (ionised gas) can be contained, so it is held in place using magnetic fields. New superconducting materials have made it possible to have super-magnets that allow the plasma to be held in reasonably sized spaces. Energy from nuclear fusion might no longer be thirty years in the future as it was permanently ridiculed to be.

A decision by the European Union to adopt nuclear energy as a mainstream green technology would give a boost to nuclear energy across the world. India has to complete its fast-breeder reactor programme that uses, as its starting block, thorium available in Kerala’s monazite sands.

Renewable power and the development of green hydrogen as a solution to the intermittency of renewable power are fine, but need to be complemented with heavy investment in nuclear power.

 

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