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Niti Aayog 'fails to recognise': Small modular N-reactors not a well-accepted technology

By Shankar Sharma* 

A recent statement by Dr VK Saraswat, member, NITI Aayog, advocating widespread usage of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in India, assuming that it is endorsed by NITI Aayog and the Union government, raises many serious concerns on policy in the energy sector, hence it needs serious introspection by the Union government.
The report quoting Dr Saraswat does not provide any indication that this advocacy has diligently considered various associated issues; especially with regard to Indian energy/ electricity scenario. Even from the perspective of many concerns in the global technological scenario, the concept of SMRs can be said to be far from a well-accepted technology.
An article by Dr MV Ramana, who is an expert on nuclear physics, and an author of “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India”, has listed very many associated issues of serious concerns, not only to the global energy scenario, but also in particular to India in a larger welfare context.
Dr Saraswat is also noted to have stated: "As far as power generation is concerned, we are better off. We have solar power, which is almost the cheapest in the world...And the cost of setting up a solar plant has come down".
In the context of these two sub-statements, it is sad that SMRs, which are associated with a lot more costs and risks to our communities, are being advocated without the help of any due diligence.
The highly credible analysis of the very concept of SMRs by Dr MV Ramana shows how various govt. agencies around the world get carried away by the unsubstantiated and tall claims by nuclear power advocates.
Some of the major concerns/ incongruities of SMRs with regard to Indian scenario can be listed as below:
  1. Whereas, of the 22 nuclear reactors in operation in the country, only four are of the designed capacity above 220 MW, SMRs are touted to be very useful in “small size of about 300 MW”. It is a moot point as to how SMRs will be any better than that of the 220 MW capacity reactors. It can also be termed as a serious dichotomy in the associated policies (or absence of any such policies) that at the same time the country seems to have consciously moved away from smaller size nuclear reactors, such as 220 MW and 540 MW designs; and has announced plans for 700 MW, 1,000 MW and 1,650 MW capacity reactors. If 300 MW capacity SMRs are to be the future for the country, does it mean that all the designs of BWRs, PHWRs, VVERs, EPRs, AP1000s will have no place in the future? Does it mean the proposal for 6*1,650 MWe nuclear power plant at Jaitapur, Maharastra will not go ahead? Since, the economy of size and multiple reactors in a single site were quoted as the basis for the so-called economic decision-making w.r.t to higher capacity units and sizes in all the operational projects, the advocacy for SMRs can be seen as denunciation of such a policy all these years.
  2. It is reported that an important study produced by nuclear advocates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had identified costs, safety, proliferation and waste as the four “unresolved problems” with nuclear power. Dr Ramana says: “Not surprisingly, then, companies trying to sell new reactor designs (SMRs) claim that their product will be cheaper, will produce less—or no—radioactive waste, be immune to accidents, and not contribute to nuclear proliferation.” A quick analysis of these concerns should be able to establish that SMRs can do no better as compared to the conventional size nuclear reactors.
  3. Dr Ramana says: “In the 2021 edition of its annual cost report, Lazard, the Wall Street firm, estimated that the levelized cost of electricity from new nuclear plants will be between $131 and $204 per megawatt hour; in contrast, newly constructed utility-scale solar and wind plants produce electricity at somewhere between $26 and $50 per megawatt hour according to Lazard. The gap between nuclear power and renewables is large, and is growing larger. While nuclear costs have increased with time, the levelized cost of electricity for solar and wind have declined rapidly, and this is expected to continue over the coming decades.”
  4. 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 more expensive.
  5. Dr Ramana says: “Small reactors also cause all of the usual problems: the risk of severe accidents, the production of radioactive waste, and the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. By their very nature, reactors have fundamental properties that render them hazardous. As a result, all nuclear plants, including SMRs, can undergo accidents that could result in widespread radioactive contamination.”
  6. 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 result in significant radiation doses to members of the public. 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.
  7. Dr Ramana says: “Claims by SMR proponents about not producing waste are not credible, especially if waste is understood not as one kind of material but a number of different streams.” “As Paul Dorfman from the University of Sussex commented, “compared with existing conventional reactors, SMRs would increase the volume and complexity of the nuclear waste problem”.
  8. On the issue of proliferation, Dr Ramana says: “The proliferation problem is made worse by SMRs in many ways. First, many designs require the use of fuel with higher levels of uranium-235 or plutonium. Second, many SMR designs will produce greater quantities of plutonium per unit of electricity relative to current reactors. Third, in the highly unlikely event that the global market for SMRs is as large as proponents claim, then countries that do not currently possess nuclear technology will acquire some of the technical means to make nuclear weapons.
  9. It is enormously relevant to India as to what Dr Ramana says in conclusion: “Rather than seeing the writing on the wall, unfortunately, government agencies are wasting money on funding small modular reactor proposals. Worse, they seek to justify such funding by repeating the tall claims made by promoters of these technologies. It would be better for them to focus on proven low-carbon sources of energy such as wind and solar, and technologies that enable these to provide a much larger fraction of our energy needs.”
When we also objectively consider the overall electricity/ energy sector scenario in India, such an advocacy on SMRs can only be viewed as totally irrational, ill-suited, and of unacceptable cost implications to our communities. It may also indicate inadequate understanding of the power sector in India.
As per the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are about 50 SMR designs and concepts globally. Most of them are in various developmental stages, and some are claimed as being near-term deployable.
But media reports indicate that there are claims that an SMR could be “complete as early as 2028”, and also describe an operational date of 2029 as an “aggressive but achievable target”. So, one of the first SMRs may take about a decade before a single unit of electricity can come out of it.
Additionally, the low-carbon emission claims with regard 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.
What a journey for the nuclear power industry so far: from the tall claims of ‘endless & cheap even to meter energy’, to never ending claims of innovations (such as Magnox, AGR, PWR, BWR, CANDU, RBMK, gas cooled reactors, fast breeder reactors etc.), to Fusion reactors and Small Modular Reactors etc.; to a large number of cancelled reactors in the US, to cost & time over-runs etc.; but totalling only about 3.8% of the global electricity capacity; and now to the tagline of ‘costliest and riskiest power generation technology’, and associated with concerns on global nuclear terrorism and intergenerational waste management issues.
Hence, the very concept of SMRs, from any perspective of relevance to India, can credibly be termed as irrelevant, to say the least.
There have also been many other serious concerns with regard to nuclear power policy to every section of our society; especially so to the poor and vulnerable sections in a hugely populous and resource constrained country of ours.
These have been highlighted in an email representation addressed to you on 12th Sept. 2019, on the subject “Societal concerns over the Environmental Clearance (EC) accorded for the expansion of Kaiga Nuclear Power Project, Karnataka”. My representations to IEA and IAEA, also on the same topic, have highlighted the enormity of such issues to the global communities in general, and to our own people in particular. These communications are as in the enclosed PDFs for your ready reference.
If we take true cognisance of various such concerns from the perspective of long-term welfare of our communities, it should become evidently clear that any advocacy in favour of nuclear power for India, certainly so on SMRs, can only be deemed as unsubstantiated, ill-conceived, sans a diligent analysis of the associated costs & benefits, and sans any effective public consultations, including any rational debate in the Parliament.
It can also be said to be a sad reflection on our society’s approach to such critical and strategic issues, that many high-profile individuals and/or those in important official positions are being seen as advocating such disastrous policies without considering the unacceptable costs to our teeming millions.
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 has 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.
A major consideration for the PMO, Finance Ministry, and NITI Aayog should be the fact that the effective utilisation of massive investments being made in the nuclear power sector to maximise the overall efficiency of the infrastructure in electricity segment, including demand side management and optimal harnessing of renewable energy sources, will lead to benefit multiplier to our society, as compared to additional societal costs and risks to our communities from nuclear power.
Additionally, in the absence of any coherent power policy for the future; because of the high AT&C losses prevailing; and because of frequent changes in some of the associated policies, the advocacy on SMRs in particular, and on nuclear power in general, can be seen as myopic, and can also be a poor reflection of the overall governance in the electricity/ energy sector.
In this larger context, will the NITI Aayog urgently start due diligence on all the associated policy perspectives and effectively involve the stakeholder groups, while also asking the concerned authorities not to indulge in any such ill-conceived advocacy in public?
Few people from civil society, who have been working on various associated issues, will feel it a privilege to make effective presentations to NITI Aayog.
Can we also hope that our leaders will not be gullible anymore for such irrational advocacies, and will seek satisfactory response for the multifarious concerns on the two kinds of nuclear power technologies?
It is also a deep misfortune for our people, that the Union government has not found it necessary to come up with a diligently prepared national energy policy, which includes detailed examination of the true relevance of various nuclear power technologies for our country.
It is even more deplorable that none of our high profile energy policy bodies such as IITs, IISc, IIMs, or any other energy research bodies have found it necessary to question the very need for the investment of large sums of money and resources.
in such a high cost and risky technology. Without the appropriate rigor in the analysis of such strategic energy policies, our people will continue to be burdened with various kinds of avoidable costs and risks.
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst. This article is based on the author’s representation to the Chairman, NITI Aayog



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