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Daily-current-affairs / 12 Oct 2023

Leveraging Nuclear Energy for India's Sustainable Growth and Net-Zero Ambitions : Daily News Analysis


Date : 13/10/2023

Relevance: GS Paper 3- Economy - Renewable Energy

Keywords: Net Zero, Sustainable Development, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), Thorium Energy, Human Development Index (HDI)


India is currently experiencing a meteoric rise in its economy and is poised to ascend to the third position globally, overtaking economic powerhouses like Germany and Japan. This remarkable growth, driven by a burgeoning population and expanding industrial and commercial sectors, is accompanied by a growing demand for energy. However, the majority of this energy is sourced from fossil fuels, making it a critical contributor to the global climate crisis.

The Climate Challenge:

The threat of global warming has escalated to an existential crisis for humanity. To combat this peril, a consensus has emerged on the imperative of achieving net-zero emissions within the 2045-2070 timeframe. This transformation towards a net-zero future necessitates a massive overhaul of energy systems, requiring the incorporation of innovative technologies and a comprehensive restructuring of energy supply and demand networks. India, as a large and developing nation, faces a monumental challenge in reaching this net-zero target, especially given its ambitious development goals that require a manifold increase in per-capita energy consumption, all while transitioning to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The Development Dilemma:

Balancing the pursuit of higher living standards and a Human Development Index (HDI) comparable to advanced countries with the urgency of achieving net-zero emissions is a formidable challenge. To attain this, it is estimated that India should maintain a minimum energy consumption of 2,400 kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per capita annually. Although improvements in energy use efficiency may reduce this threshold to around 1,400 kgoe, the sheer scale of India's energy requirements for sustainable development is staggering. The clean energy demand for a developed India is projected to be around 25,000-30,000 terawatt-hours (TWhr) per year, more than four times the present energy consumption.

Renewables Alone Are Not Enough:

While India has made commendable strides in the deployment of renewable energy sources, including hydroelectric power, it is clear that a reliance on renewables alone cannot catapult the nation into the realm of advanced economies. Even if we were to envision an ambitious scenario where every arable patch of land in India was devoted to solar energy production, the numbers would still fall woefully short of the lotarget. The potential of wind energy, though promising, is insufficient to bridge the gap. In light of these limitations, it becomes evident that a substantial upscaling of nuclear energy is not merely a choice but a necessity.

Embracing Nuclear Energy:

For India to fulfill its developmental aspirations and meet the stringent net-zero emissions target, nuclear energy must be accorded a prominent role in the nation's energy mix. It is imperative that India sheds the unfounded apprehensions and prejudices that have surrounded nuclear energy and builds a robust policy and management framework to facilitate its growth. Without the substantial integration of nuclear energy, India's journey towards becoming a developed nation remains unattainable.

A Unique, Homegrown Strategy:

In this context, it is crucial to formulate a distinctive and homegrown strategy that recognizes the indispensable role of nuclear energy. This strategy comprises six pivotal elements, each playing a specific role in India's quest for sustainable growth and environmental stewardship.

  • Indigenous 700 MWe PHWRs for Baseload Capacity: The Indigenous 700 Megawatt Electrical (MWe) Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) are at the forefront of this strategy. The first unit is already in commercial operation, demonstrating its reliability and efficiency. To expand baseload electrical capacity, an additional fifteen such units are currently under construction in fleet mode. It is essential to embrace this technology and initiate more fleets for implementation, with the involvement of multiple Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) alongside the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL).
  • Indigenous Small Modular Reactors (SMRs): The second prong involves the development of indigenous Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) to replace coal plants that are expected to retire in the coming decades. Large Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) have shown that importing such units can render electricity production unaffordable. Collaborating with the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), the largest owner of coal plants in the country, is a natural step. Engaging more industrial partners in this initiative is crucial to meet the rising energy demand.
  • Captive Units for Energy-Intensive Industries: The third prong focuses on deploying well-proven 220 MWe PHWR units as partially owned captive units. These units would cater to the electricity and hydrogen requirements of energy-intensive industries like metals, chemicals, and fertilizers. The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor 300 (AHWR300-LEU), developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), could also play a pivotal role in this context after demonstrating a prototype.
  • High-Temperature Reactors for Hydrogen Production: The fourth prong aims to develop high-temperature reactors that can directly produce hydrogen without relying on electrolysis. This approach can lead to more cost-effective green hydrogen production, alleviating pressure on the electricity grid. While the technological capability exists, a concerted effort is required to establish the necessary infrastructure.
  • Harnessing Thorium Energy Potential: India has substantial potential in thorium energy. India only possesses 2% of the world's Uranium reserves. In contrast, India is home to 25% of the World's Thorium reserves, amounting to approximately 400 thousand tonnes. Expanding the second and third stages of the nuclear power program is crucial to unlock the extensive thorium energy reserves. Thorium holds the promise of a long-term sustainable energy supply, enhancing India's energy security.
  • International Cooperation for Addressing Climate Change: In the context of emerging economies experiencing significant growth in energy consumption, it is imperative to embark on rapid deployment of new nuclear energy capacity to effectively combat climate change on a global scale. India's PHWRs are globally competitive in terms of performance and capital cost. Moreover, the utilization of Thorium-High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuel can further enhance these reactors' attractiveness in terms of economics, safety, waste management, and proliferation resistance. India should consider international collaboration to drive global efforts aimed at tackling climate change.

The Way Forward:

To achieve an annual energy consumption of 25,000-30,000 TWhr by 2070, corresponding to a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of approximately 4.8%, India must leverage nuclear energy as a significant component of its energy mix. A bold policy framework is essential to provide nuclear energy with a level playing field, on par with renewable energy.

Challenges to the Adoption of Nuclear Energy:

  • High Capital Costs: Nuclear power plants are substantial investments, and recent nuclear projects have experienced significant cost overruns. A notable example is the V.C. Summer nuclear project in South Carolina, where expenses escalated to over $9 billion, ultimately leading to the project's abandonment.
  • Inadequate Nuclear Installed Capacity: Initial projections by the Atomic Energy Commission in 2008 envisioned India having 650 gigawatts (GW) of installed nuclear capacity by 2050. However, the current installed capacity stands at only 6.78 GW. These projections were contingent on India importing several light-water reactors following the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal, which has not materialized even 13 years after its conclusion.
  • Lack of Public Funding: Unlike fossil fuels, which historically received substantial subsidies, and renewables, which are presently benefitting from generous support, nuclear power has not enjoyed similar levels of public funding. Without adequate financial support, nuclear energy faces challenges in competing with natural gas and renewables in the future.
  • Land Acquisition Issues: The process of land acquisition and site selection for Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) poses significant challenges in India. NPPs like Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh have encountered numerous delays due to land acquisition-related hurdles.
  • Climate Change Impact: Climate change exacerbates the risk of nuclear reactor accidents. Rising global temperatures have forced the temporary shutdown or removal of several nuclear power plants during increasingly hot summers. Additionally, nuclear power plants rely on nearby water sources for reactor cooling, and with many rivers drying up, the availability of water sources is no longer guaranteed. The frequency of extreme weather events is expected to rise.
  • Nuclear Waste Concerns: Nuclear power generates significant amounts of hazardous nuclear waste. This waste can have severe detrimental effects on life, including the development of cancerous growths and genetic problems across multiple generations of animals and plants. In a densely populated country like India, where land is limited and widespread access to emergency healthcare is lacking, managing nuclear waste is a critical issue.

Steps to Address Nuclear Energy Challenges:

  • Subsidy for Nuclear Electricity: To make nuclear electricity competitive in the market, the Indian government, which operates all nuclear plants through the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, would need to offer substantial subsidies. While nuclear power may cost around ₹15 per unit (excluding transmission costs), recent low bids for solar power have been as low as ₹2.14 per unit. Subsidies can help bridge this cost disparity.
  • Pre-Project Issue Resolution: The government should prioritize resolving pre-project issues that hinder the development of nuclear power. These issues include land acquisition for new sites, obtaining clearances from various ministries, especially the Ministry of Environment, and securing timely foreign collaborators. Additionally, ongoing efforts should be made to reduce the capital cost of nuclear power plants.
  • Safety Enhancement: Safety concerns, a major consideration in nuclear energy, should be addressed urgently. Completely phasing out nuclear power generation due to the fear of nuclear accidents would be an ill-advised move. By adhering to the highest safety standards, the risk of catastrophic accidents can be significantly reduced. Establishing a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority promptly would contribute to the overall safety of nuclear power programs in the country.
  • Technological Advancements: India should focus on enhancing reprocessing and enrichment capacities. To achieve this, the country needs access to advanced technologies that enable the efficient utilization of spent nuclear fuel and the expansion of its enrichment capabilities. Investing in technological advancements will be crucial for the development of the nuclear energy sector in India.


India's rapid economic growth and the imperative of addressing climate change demand a comprehensive strategy that incorporates nuclear energy as a pivotal component. Nuclear energy's safety, cleanliness, and potential for sustainable power generation make it a critical asset for India's development and net-zero aspirations. The country must move forward with conviction, implementing a six-pronged strategy to harness the full potential of nuclear energy and drive global efforts to address climate change effectively. India's journey towards a sustainable and prosperous future hinges on its ability to embrace nuclear energy as a key catalyst for growth and sustainability.

Probable Questions for UPSC Mains Exam-

  1. How can India balance its rapid economic growth and the urgent need to achieve net-zero emissions, considering its increasing demand for energy from fossil fuels? (10 Marks,150 Words)
  2. What are the key components of India's unique six-pronged strategy to leverage nuclear energy for sustainable growth and environmental stewardship? (15Marks,250 Words)

Source: The Indian Express