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Uranium costs escalate, supply uncertain, yet India plans 275,000 MW N-power by 2050

By Shankar Sharma* 

This has reference to a news report in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on a steep increasing trend in the price of uranium, which is required for nuclear power production, an already difficult scenario with regard to a steady supply of the fissile materials, and the stated/ implicit policy of the government to increase the number of nuclear power reactors in the country by an astonishing margin.
One such plan of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), as reported in 2008, indicates an aspirational target of increasing the total nuclear power generating capacity in the country from the present level of about 7,000 MW to about 275,000 MW by 2050.
This scenario throws up multiple and very serious concerns for our communities.
With such a strategic plan for nuclear power capacity, since the known reserve of uranium ore in the country is projected to be sufficient to support only about 10,000 MW of nuclear capacity (as per the Integrated Energy Policy, 2011), India will have to depend on overseas technology and supply for most of its future plans, and hence its focus on "atma nirbharata" or self-sufficiency will have to be compromised.
In this context it should be critical to note that the latest CSIRO (Australia) report says that wind and solar are much cheaper than nuclear, even with added integration costs, and even for Australia, which is a major supplier of uranium.
With the credible assumption that this plan of DAE has not undergone any downward revision since 2008, there is a critical need for our country to diligently review the very nuclear power policy, before more of our meagre resources (financial as well as natural resources) are committed to increase the total nuclear power capacity.
As per a less known DAE document of 2008, "A Strategy for the Growth of Electricity in India”, the plan was to increase the nuclear power capacity in the country to about 275,000 MW by 2050. Even if we were to consider further this highly unrealistic plan, it will require about 390 nuclear reactors of average capacity of 700 MW.
The enormity of the task of constructing 368 additional reactors (22 are already operating) in the next 33 years should become evident when we compare the fact that only 22 nuclear reactors, were constructed in the duration of about 50 years.
Keeping in view the enormous quantities of water required for these reactors it is most likely that the future reactors will be on the coast. Even assuming that 4 reactors of 700 MW of capacity each will form a single nuclear project, the country’s 6,000 km coastline will have to be dotted with a nuclear power project at every 60 km.
Though this stupendously ambitious plan (may mean adding on an average 8,000 MW of nuclear power capacity every year during next 3 decades) sound hilarious to say the least, looking at what has happened in the last 50 years, it should be a matter of grave concern to our society because it indicates the determination of DAE to seek huge budgetary support to try and expand nuclear power capacity exponentially, and the scope for the denial of adequate financial resources to develop renewable energy sources which are the sustainable sources.
Allowing for an average of 1.5 sq km area around each reactor as a safety zone, 390 reactors may require a minimum of about 585 sq km area as a whole in addition to the vast stretches of land for dedicated transmission lines, and the associated mining/ milling operations.
The affordability of diverting such a vast land area for the nuclear power sector in a densely populated country should be another matter of concern requiring diligent approach. In this context, the very policy of DAE to plan for additional nuclear reactors must be satisfactorily explained to the public.
Even if SMRs (Small Modular Reactors) are to be considered for the future, as one proposal is before the DAE, all the concerns associated with large capacity nuclear reactors, such as unacceptable costs at societal level and risks, will remain with only varying magnitudes.
The credible risks associated with nuclear accidents can only increase exponentially, because to be of any true relevance to our power sector the nuclear power capacity from SMRs must be considerable, which means a large number of reactor locations, as compared to only about a few locations now.
A strong preference for SMRs shall mean, a lot more places in the country will become nuclear reactor sites, and hence, a vastly greater number of communities will face various risks and costs associated with nuclear radiation. Assuming that smaller reactors may reduce the risk and impact of accidents, even a very small reactor can undergo accidents that will result in significant radiation doses to members of the public.
Small Modular Reactors are credibly projected to cost more than the large size reactors for each unit of generation capacity
It should be emphasised that multiple reactors at a site, even if they are SMRs, can only increase the overall risk that an accident at one unit might either induce accidents at other reactors, or make it harder to take preventive actions at others.
As per a compilation of associated costs for various technologies in US, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its report “Capital Cost Estimates for Utility Scale Electricity Generating Plants”, 2016 has listed the capital cost of the advanced nuclear power plant as much higher than any other technology power plants.
8. In a study by Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), Finland, and the Energy Watch Group (EWG), Germany, under the title “Comparing electricity production costs of renewables to fossil and nuclear power plants in G20 countries”, the authors have established that the cost of nuclear power technology as in 2017 was the highest of all the known technologies, with solar and wind power technologies being the lowest in life cycle cost.
Lazard’s annual Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) analysis (version 11.0) has reported that the solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power costs have dropped an extraordinary 88% and 69% since 2009, respectively.
Meanwhile, coal and nuclear costs have increased by 9% and 23%, respectively. Even without accounting for current subsidies, renewable energy costs can be considerably lower than the marginal cost of conventional energy technologies.
SMRs are credibly projected to cost more than the large size reactors for each unit (megawatt) of generation capacity. They are also expected to generate less electrical energy per MW of designed capacity. This makes electricity from small reactors vastly more expensive.
Additionally, the low-carbon emission claims w.r.t to nuclear power technology has been challenged by many experts; especially because of the enormity of the challenges to deploy an adequate number of nuclear power reactors all over the planet in the next 10-20 years to make any substantial impact on climate change.
Since the Union government seems to be unduly influenced by the continuing and irrational advocacy on nuclear power by IAEA, it has to be ascertained as to why IAEA has not been able to avert three major nuclear disasters so far, and why it is not taking responsibility for the humongous societal level costs for these three nuclear disasters, and for all future nuclear disasters.
When we objectively consider all these and other issues from the true welfare perspective of our people, the associated costs, risks and uncertainties associated with nuclear power reactors, in whatever form and size, will be unacceptably high, and hence, cannot be a true electricity supply option; at least for India; especially when compared to other electricity supply technologies such as renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power technologies.
In this larger context, it can also be stated as a great dis-service to and even a serious let-down of our people if DAE decides to continue to pursue nuclear power policy for the country at humongous costs, risks and uncertainties, without satisfactorily addressing all the associated concerns of civil society groups, and by domain experts.
The fact that there has been no credible energy policy for the country, even though a draft National Energy Policy was circulated way back in 2017, should also indicate that NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Power have failed to objectively consider how our electricity/ energy needs can be met during the next 20-30 years; especially in the context of fast looming climate emergency.
In this context, a copy of my detailed representation to the Prime Minister in 2019 can provide one with a list of many more credible and serious concerns to our people.
Additionally, my email representation to AEC/ DAE (dated, 23rd December. 2018), and to IAEA (dated, 16th November 2023) the Union minister of state for atomic energy, as also AEC/PMO, should be able to provide a lot more details on various associated issues in order to persuade the Union government to take serious note of multiple concerns to our country.
The Union government should undertake a rigorous analysis of all the associated costs and benefits of nuclear power policy for India, in an objective comparison with all other electricity generation technologies available to our country, and review the electricity demand/ supply policy for the country, before committing our communities for the risks, costs and uncertainties associated with nuclear power reactors.
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*Power & Climate Policy Analyst. This article is based on the author’s representation to Dr Jitendra Singh, Union Minister of State, Department of Atomic Energy, New Delhi

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