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To hit net zero, India’s energy transition may need to rely more on nuclear generation

December 6, 2021
India’s net zero pledge at COP26 last month, announced after years of refusing to set targets for net-zero emissions, puts the country on an ambitious path to transition towards a cleaner, greener economy. While renewable energy will play a vital role in this shift, meeting India’s base load energy requirement may not be possible without substantially expanding nuclear generation

Prime Minister Modi’s commitment at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26)  to rapidly decarbonise its energy sector by 2030 and hit net zero emissions by 2070 has raised questions of what will replace coal as India’s base load electricity source. While parts of the developed world are turning to natural gas to replace ageing coal plants, India’s current thrust towards solar and wind power cannot fill the gap that thermal power will leave behind. 

India, as the third largest carbon emitter globally, is under incredible pressure on the world stage to rapidly reduce emissions even as the government must meet the growing requirements of an energy poor nation at home. Since the Paris Agreement was signed six years ago, India has set up about 100 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity (which includes solar, wind and small hydro power). At Glasgow, the Prime Minister pushed the target further--aiming to hit 500 GW and renewables by 2030 that will meet about half of India’s energy needs as well as cutting carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes in a decade. The nature of renewable energy from solar and wind power, however, and their intermittent generation make them unreliable to meet India’s base load energy requirement, a burden so far borne by coal.  

The government’s focus is now increasingly shifting to nuclear power and is reassessing its contribution to India’s energy basket.

Nuclear capacity

India currently has 6.7 GW of installed nuclear power capacity across 22 reactors (plus one commissioned this year, but not supplying to the grid yet), contributing 1.7% of India’s total energy requirement. The Central Electricity Authority’s optimal generation plan has set a target of increasing this contribution to at least 5% by 2030. But nuclear generation has a long way to go if it is to fully replace thermal power for base load needs in India; thermal power supports 60% of India’s energy needs today, according to the same authority.  

Nuclear energy’s role in India’s energy basket stagnated over the last few decades because of its isolation by nuclear supplier nations. The nuclear trade waiver from the suppliers group in 2008 hasn’t yet led to an increase in capacity on the ground, until now. 

“Nuclear power is a clean and environment-friendly source of base load power available 24x7,” Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the department of atomic energy, told Parliament on February 3, 2021. “It has huge potential that can ensure long-term energy security of the country in a sustainable manner.” 

He said in a written reply to the legislature that the government has given in-principal approval for setting up nuclear power capacities of over 25 GW in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh; some of these plants will be built using indigenous technology that bypasses dependence on foreign suppliers for critical components. “On progressive completion of the projects under construction and accorded sanction, nuclear capacity is expected to reach 22.48 GW by 2031. More nuclear power plants are also planned in future," he said.

“India has big plans for the next few decades about expanding nuclear's contribution to the energy mix; I think we’re set to see the largest capacity expansion in this segment in India in the coming decades as around 4.8GW is already in different stage of construction and is likely to come up in this decade itself,” Nitin Bansal, Associate Director, India Ratings and Research, said. “The government has also given financial sanction for 10 indigenous nuclear plants totalling a capacity of 700 megawatt each. So that’s another 7 GW of pressurized heavy water (indigenous) reactors coming up.”

 

“If we are to diversify from coal based thermal power for base load requirements, nuclear power will be a good fit,” Bansal said. “Given the nature of power, nuclear plants enjoy a must-run status. However because one can't ramp up and down the generation from a nuclear plant, India would still need hydropower or battery storage for peak power balancing for the increasing renewable generation. Though gas based power plants are also a good fit to provide peak power balancing, natural gas resources are scarce for India, and hence the future energy mix for India might be a mix of nuclear, hydro and renewables.”

Green debate

There is a longstanding debate on the clean credentials of nuclear energy, but its carbon emission lifecycle is similar to solar and wind power, making it an attractive avenue for energy decarbonisation. The fears of radiation risks, and the fallout that local communities will experience in such cases, means that any move from the government to set up new reactors have met with widespread protests from local communities. 

“The strong grassroots protests we’ve seen against nuclear power, in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra for instance, have effectively stalled much of the expansion work at these sites,” a person close to these protest groups said on condition of anonymity. 

“Everything with regard to nuclear happens behind an opaque curtain in India. Even though the Nuclear Power Corporation of India runs the power plants, the administration of anything nuclear ultimately rests with the Department of Atomic Energy which doesn’t make any information public. We don’t know how safely these plants are run, how or where the waste is disposed and how safely these reactors will be maintained during their end-of-life decommissioning. India has some of the oldest nuclear reactors in the world which are past their decommission dates but they are still operational—how safe is this? Where is the information for the public?” 

In addition to these factors, building a future on nuclear power will be difficult not only because India is not a member of the  Nuclear Suppliers Group but also due to civil nuclear liability rules that can hold component suppliers liable in case of accidents. This has spooked most foreign nuclear suppliers to India, except for Russia and France, the former currently constructing 6 units of 1000 MW each at Kudankulam plant in Tamil Nadu (first two of them operating since 2014 and 2017 respectively) and the latter working on the proposed 9.6GWe Jaitapur Nuclear Power in Maharashtra.

Russia’s Rosatom State Corporation CEO Alexey Likhachev, commenting on the results of COP26, said the history of nuclear energy has begun a new countdown and could event be divided into "before COP26" and "after COP26" as the conference ended the debate on whether nuclear energy has a place in a carbon-free world on a positive note.

“Nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source that has avoided about 74 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions over the past 50 years, nearly two years’ worth of total global energy-related emissions. Only hydropower has played a greater role in avoiding emissions over this period,” a recent report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) noted. Going ahead, nuclear power will be an important source of low-carbon electricity and heat that contribute to attaining carbon neutrality, it added.

Tanya Thomas, Ksenia Kondratieva