Nuclear Energy

Whether The Nuclear Power in India Should Be Phased Out?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Nuclear energy, applications and elements such as Uranium, Thorium,

Mains level: Nuclear power phasing down discussion


Central idea

  • Germany has recently shut down its last nuclear power plant, and France, the nuclear powerhouse of the world, is struggling to replenish its stock of aging reactors. With solar and wind power becoming more popular globally, the question arises whether nuclear power, with its attendant concerns on cost and safety, remains a relevant option for a fossil-free future, particularly in India. The question here arises is that whether the nuclear power in India should be phased out?

Global outlook for nuclear power

  • Nuclear power renaissance in Europe and US: A lot has happened in the last two years. Particularly after the Ukraine war, nuclear power is seeing a renaissance, even in Europe and the U.S.
  • China: China has anyway been surging ahead on nuclear power.
  • South Korea: South Korea’s new president has changed the energy policy and committed to increasing the share of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix to 30% by 2030.
  • Japan: Japan, which should have completely shut down reactors after the Fukushima (accident), is restarting them, 10 have been restarted following years of inspection and upgrading safety systems, and I believe that the plan is to start 10 more. Japan had to do that because it was otherwise dependent either on expensive, imported coal or on natural gas (LNG).
  • UK: Beyond Germany, the U.K. has said that without scaling up nuclear power, it won’t be possible to decarbonise the electricity sector.

Facts for prelims

Element Deposits in India Applications Advantages Disadvantages
Uranium Jaduguda, Bhatin, Narwapahar, Banduhurang, Mohuldih and Turamdih in Jharkhand; Lambapur-Peddagattu in Telangana; Gogi in Karnataka; and Tummalapalle in Andhra Pradesh Electricity generation, nuclear weapons, nuclear medicine Low carbon emissions, efficient energy production, cost-effective Radioactive waste management, risk of nuclear accidents, non-renewable
Thorium Kerala coast, Bihar, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and Rajasthan Electricity generation, nuclear weapons, nuclear medicine More abundant than uranium, low levels of radioactivity, more efficient energy production than uranium Requires a breeder reactor, expensive, currently not widely used

Why nuclear power is considered low-carbon or green energy?

  • Low greenhouse gas emissions: Nuclear power plants do not produce carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases during their operation, unlike fossil fuel plants that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and contribute to climate change.
  • High energy density: Nuclear fuel contains a very high energy density, which means that a small amount of fuel can produce a large amount of energy. This makes nuclear power a very efficient and reliable source of energy.
  • Energy security: Nuclear power plants provide a stable and reliable source of energy, which can help to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and improve energy security.
  • Reduced air pollution: Nuclear power plants do not emit pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or particulate matter, which can have negative impacts on human health and the environment.
  • Land use: Nuclear power plants require much less land than renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power, which can help to conserve land and natural habitats.

How Nuclear energy is also responsible for greenhouse gas emissions?

  • Nuclear energy itself does not emit greenhouse gases during its operation, but it does produce greenhouse gas emissions during the lifecycle of the plant, including mining, processing, and transportation of nuclear fuel.
  • The construction and decommissioning of nuclear power plants also produce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, nuclear power plants rely on fossil fuels for the transportation of nuclear fuel and the operation of auxiliary systems.
  • The greenhouse gas emissions associated with nuclear energy are significantly lower than those associated with fossil fuels, but they are not zero.

Why is there resistance to nuclear energy?

  • Safety concerns: The risk of nuclear accidents, such as those that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima, have led to safety concerns about nuclear power plants. The potential for radioactive contamination and long-term health effects on the surrounding population have made many people wary of nuclear power.
  • Nuclear proliferation: The possibility that nuclear power could be used to develop nuclear weapons is a concern for many countries, particularly those with nuclear weapons programs themselves.
  • Waste disposal: The radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is dangerous and must be stored safely for hundreds of thousands of years. Finding a safe and secure method of storing this waste is a major challenge.
  • Cost: Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and maintain. Cost overruns and delays are common, and the cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants at the end of their life can be significant.
  • Public perception: Nuclear power has a negative public image in many countries, with many people associating it with danger and disaster.

Facts for Prelims

Uranium Thorium
Atomic number 92 90
Natural isotopes U-238, U-235, U-234 Th-232
Radioactivity Highly radioactive Weakly radioactive
Fissile U-235 is fissile Not fissile
Nuclear weapons Can be used to create nuclear weapons Cannot be used to create nuclear weapons
Nuclear power Widely used for nuclear power Not commonly used for nuclear power
Decay products Produces many long-lived and dangerous decay products Produces fewer and less dangerous decay products
Availability Limited reserves Abundant reserves
Waste disposal Radioactive waste remains dangerous for thousands of years Radioactive waste decays faster and becomes less dangerous
Environmental impact Can have significant environmental impact Considered less environmentally damaging than uranium mining
Health effects Exposure can cause serious health effects, including cancer Less harmful to human health than uranium

What are the concerns over radioactivity from spent fuel?

  • Long-term storage: Spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive for thousands of years and requires careful handling and storage to prevent any potential exposure to humans and the environment.
  • Accidents: Accidents during transportation or storage of spent nuclear fuel can result in the release of radioactive material, which can cause severe environmental damage and health risks to humans and other living organisms.
  • Nuclear proliferation: Spent nuclear fuel can also be used to create nuclear weapons, and there are concerns about the risk of nuclear proliferation and the potential use of these weapons.
  • Disposal: The long-term disposal of spent nuclear fuel is also a major challenge, as it requires finding safe and secure locations to store the material for thousands of years.

Why India should never consider phasing out nuclear power?

  • Limited growth potential for hydropower: India has limited growth potential for hydropower due to factors such as conserving biodiversity, rehabilitating and compensating landowners, and seismological factors in the Himalayas. Therefore, nuclear power is an alternative to coal-based power plants.
  • Net-zero emissions goal: To achieve the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, India needs a combination of small modular reactors and large reactors. Therefore, multiple companies need to be allowed to operate nuclear reactors rather than a monopoly by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited.
  • Firm, reliable and low-carbon power: Nuclear power is a source of firm, dispatchable power that is low carbon and reliable. It can provide a constant and stable source of electricity, especially when wind and solar energy are intermittent or variable.
  • Access to nuclear fuel: India has limited access to enriched uranium, which is required to fuel nuclear reactors. However, the country’s nuclear program is based on working around its limited supply of enriched uranium, and it has not faced any significant issues in accessing nuclear fuel.
  • Portfolio of technologies: A mix of supply-side and demand-side technologies is required to solve energy problems. Nuclear power can be a part of the portfolio of technologies that India needs to achieve its energy goals. Therefore, policy frameworks should be enabling rather than technology-specific.

Mains Question

Q. Do you agree with the statement that ‘Without scaling up nuclear power, it won’t be possible to decarbonise the electricity sector.

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