With India hoping to follow China in its rapid and mammoth nuclear power expansion, it merits consideration whether such an expensive yet foundational project is feasible. There are many shortcomings of nuclear power, though none of them are what are commonly perceived: though nuclear critics constantly wail from an outdated playbook about radiation, nuclear waste, and accidents, far more realistic problems are financing, regulatory processes, industry-wide deterioration of skills, and transparency. These deficiencies of nuclear power will become a millstone around India’s neck if not addressed soon and adequately. These shortcomings are not merely the responsibility of the industry; in some areas, the government must also play an active and positive role if it genuinely wishes to develop a source of clean, abundant, reliable, and safe energy.
It is true that nuclear power plants are expensive; although nuclear power itself is quite price competitive with other sources of electricity, the economics of nuclear power plants is such that most of the cost of the project – over its entire life – are demanded upfront. The costs of thermal energy are evenly spread over the life of a plant – usually 30 years – whereas the cost of nuclear fuel is a miniscule component of nuclear energy and market price fluctuations hardly affect the cost of electricity unlike with hydrocarbons. Furthermore, nuclear plants are built to last for 60 years, twice the lifespan of thermal power and thrice the duration of solar farms; nuclear regulatory authorities worldwide are looking at the latest nuclear power plant designs and considering extending the potential life of a reactor to a minimum of 80 and a maximum of 100 years. Another factor adding to the cost of nuclear power is that estimates made consider nuclear waste – whether it is stored or reprocessed – and decommissioning. Fossil fuel has so far managed to get off without paying for the massive pollution it causes, in effect subsidising its operations.
This over-engineering raises the initial cost of nuclear power plants. Though the figures periodically released to the Lok Sabha by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) indicate that nuclear energy is competitive with other sources of energy over its lifetime, the high initial cost creates a financial burden few are willing to or capable of taking. Investors are usually not so sanguine on projects that have a long gestation period and the return on investment is low. In a more market-oriented world, the nuclear industry must address this issue if it is to win over any critics. One idea the industry has been playing with is making reactors smaller. The sacrifice in economy of scale is hoped to be compensated by creating modular components that can be fabricated faster and the smaller size will make them suitable not just around urban concentrations but even for use in more sparsely populated or rural areas. Some entrepreneurs are even toying with production line manufacturing on nuclear power plants. If it works, the speed of construction should increase drastically as well as the cost come down; together, these improvements will make the cost of financing more attractive to lenders and inspire greater interest in nuclear power.
The government, for its part, can also make financing of nuclear power easier. In China, for example, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) raised $2.5 billion in May 2015 through an IPO in the Shanghai stock market. Delhi’s reticence to allow any public scrutiny of the nuclear industry – financially, technologically, or administratively – only hampers the nuclear public sector undertaking from realising its full potential. Financial streams from the private sector are also forbidden and it was only a couple of weeks ago that an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act was passed to allow even other PSUs to invest – from a distance – in the nuclear sector! In 2012, there was a proposal to divest some 10 per cent from the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) and list it on the bourses but like many files in the Indian bureaucracy, little has been heard of it since.
A second obstacle the nuclear industry faces is the regulatory authority. In the United States, the complaint of the nuclear industry is that the process for the approval of new reactor designs is laborious, expensive, and sometimes done with criteria that reflects older knowledge than the latest developments in the industry. In India, the hurdles start sooner – in that the Atomic Energy regulatory Board (AERB) is not a body independent of the chain of command of those it regulates. Several members of the DAE have stressed on previous occasions that this administrative quibble does not in any way impinge upon the working of the regulatory authority but in a country like India where command influence and the flouting of laws is not at all uncommon, even the appearance of impropriety is reason to worry. Over decades of governmental misconduct, citizens have lost faith in government institutions and in areas like nuclear energy where the scope for damage is enormous, unflattering reports from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) such as in 2012 are damning.
India is developing a 900 MW Light Water Reactor (LWR) and its Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) have been close to criticality for at least three years now and awaiting regulatory clearances; the thorium-powered 300 MW Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), a technology demonstrator, has been ready to break ground for a few years now. The Russian 1,000 MW VVER at Kudankulam I that shut down for routine maintenance has had its restart delayed, allegedly for thorough regulatory inspections. Each time, the nuclear establishment conveniently hides behind safety inspections – no one can fault the agency for due diligence and yet no one is clear what exactly causes the never-ending delays.
Perhaps the single greatest problem that faces nuclear power is the deterioration of skills in its workforce. This includes not just the engineers in the control room at a plant but the cement mixers, welders, and the dozens of other professions involved from the groundbreaking until the commissioning. Nowhere has this been more apparent than at Olkiluoto, the site in Finland where Areva is building its latest 1,650 MW reactor, the EPR. The crew did not have a proper understanding of nuclear safety, there was poor communication, problems witnessed were not immediately addressed, many of the workers were not trained in nuclear-grade construction, and the chain of command was unclear. According to industry reports, these problems arise from a lack of experience in nuclear construction: Europe had gone through a nuclear lull for 15 years and many of its best engineers and specialists had migrated to other industries since the last reactor was built.
India’s pace of nuclear construction has been lethargic at best, constructing only 20 reactors in the 46 years since its first civilian reactor went critical in 1969. It is only with a large and regular orders that the nuclear industry in India will be able to overcome its umpteen issues and streamline its efforts to reduce construction delays and improve quality. An example of this can be seen in the United Arab Emirates, where the experience of working on multiple reactors simultaneously has enabled efficiencies between construction sites. The Indian seems to have noticed this too, with reports on imminent nuclear agreements with Rosatom and Westinghouse suggesting that six reactors will be built at once rather than the traditional India two-at-a-time. Nonetheless, efficient nuclear builds require a decent tempo and given India’s shortage of power and commitments to clean energy, this ought not be a problem. The era of taking over a decade to construct one reactor, however, must be left behind.
The root of many fears about nuclear energy comes from a lack of transparency in the establishment. Nothing shuts mouths or doors faster on a researcher in India than mentioning the word, ‘nuclear.’ Despite their claims to openness, the DAE remains remarkably opaque to outsiders. From exploration for uranium to reprocessing, the Indian establishment reveals little about its civilian programme under the guise of security. So far, this policy has done a better job at covering incompetence than actually increasing security. Some of the more informative studies of the Indian nuclear programme, as a result, come from foreign think tanks who employ scientists to monitor nuclear developments worldwide. From observations that mean little to the uninitiated, these scholars have painted a picture of the Indian nuclear programme beyond what the Indian government reveals to its own citizens.
Most of this secrecy is unnecessary and only breeds suspicion in the minds of the public. The fantastic tales of malfeasance within India’s nuclear conclave gain weight only because it is difficult to know what to believe. The CAG has upbraided NPCIL on its resistance to greater transparency yet there seems to be little done to ameliorate the situation. This is not entirely within the hands of nuclear scientists and administrators – the laws of the land could well land them in jail if they were to actually embrace a more transparent work ethic. Some have suggested that greater public awareness is required but on this, it is difficult to fault the Indian nuclear establishment – although more can always be done, there has been an impressive array of events at various levels by the various nuclear agencies to reach out to the public and explain the basics of nuclear physics and safety. However, these efforts do not extend to questions on policy, processes, or administration. Wherever the fault lies, the DAE has a Herculean task before it to rectify the perception that it may or may not know what it is doing behind closed doors.
These are the main challenges ailing nuclear energy and those old concerns from the 1950s that make for more scintillating headlines – if the nuclear industry can address these four issues, they would be in a much better position to power the country to a cleaner, cheaper, and more energy-secure future. However, as one nuclear engineer with almost three decades of experience told me, how a society handles the first set of concerns from the six decades ago is usually a good indicator of how they will approach the real challenges today.
This post appeared on FirstPost on December 31, 2015.