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Why continued obsession with adding more 'water guzzling' coal, nuclear power plants?

By Shankar Sharma* 

The true concerns over water inefficiency in coal power plants have been known and have been highlighted many times in the past. A highly relevant study report by Prayas Energy Group had highlighted this fast looming threat to our society many years ago. But our authorities have been acting as though there can be no issue with water supply, and that additional coal power plants can be added indefinitely; even without any true relevance to climate change.
A "Down to Earth" report points to how it is imperative to improve water efficiency in India’s coal-fired thermal power plants. "Massive water withdrawal will not only have repercussions on the watersheds across India but will ultimately interrupt the functioning of the power plant during the lean periods", it says.
It is not just the enormous magnitude of the consumptive use of fresh water in coal power plants, at the cost of people's needs, which should have been of serious concern. Whatever little is allowed back into the river is polluted, and the ash ponds also pollute the underground water table, while the forest felling for the associated reasons have been minimised the rain water percolation into the underground water table.
These facts have been known for decades, and the red flags have been shown frequently. But the powerful lobbying for meeting the ever increasing demand for electricity by urban areas and industries has been too much for our authorities not to be influenced negatively.
In this context, we should also emphasise the issue with the vast quantities of fresh water required for nuclear power plants of which the Union government has plans to build massive numbers in the near future in "fleet mode" of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). (See: India working on small, factory-built N-reactors, nod for 10 under 'fleet mode')
Our authorities also need to bear in mind that in the context of global warming, not only the average temp. of river water is getting increased, but also the quantity of water flow in rivers is getting reduced with the passage of each year.
Have they diligently considered the associated risks being posed for the operating nuclear reactors; especially in the context that many operating nuclear reactors in Europe and the US are reported to be forced to be shut down in peak summer months due to these factors?
In this ongoing madness of obsession to add more of such water guzzling power plants, it is almost impossible to notice any concern for the true welfare of humans and animals, which are dependent on adequate supply of potable water.
Associated threats are much more serious to states such as Karnataka, which is already known as the foremost state in water scarcity
In summary, it can be stated as a policy irresponsibility to continue to establish more power plants based on coal and nuclear power technology; especially without a clear policy perspective (national energy policy?) and without due diligence such as effective public consultation.
But who cares for such Central Electricity Authority (CEA) reports, which have been conveniently ignored in the past too. Multiple alternatives available to our country to satisfactorily meet the legitimate demand for electricity seem to be of not much interest to our authorities.
With the continued and wanton destruction of original forest and tree cover in the name of developmental projects all over the country, and with the unscientific withdrawal of water from fresh water bodies for irrigation and other usage, the repercussions on the watersheds across India can only get worse with the passage of each month.
The associated threats are much more serious to states such as Karnataka, which is already known as the foremost state in water scarcity; which has no coal reserve of its own; and also has poor forest ad tree cover, but which is persisting with building more coal and nuclear power plants. What sort of welfare perspective can we notice in such unsubstantiated policies/ practices?
Can we realistically expect the power ministry, NITI Aayog and PMO to diligently consider such strategic issues of existential threat to our people, instead of focusing only on a high GDP growth rate paradigm, because of which the increase in demand for electricity is incessant?
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst



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