Nuclear Energy is past its expiry date, renewal energy is the future



Channuwala used to be a non-descript village in Moga district of Punjab. Like every other village in prosperous Punjab, Channuwala too suffered long power cuts, with electricity available for not more than 12 hours a day. But after the installation of two biogas plants having a capacity of 150-200 cubic metres, and with many villagers setting up their own biogas plants, more than 4,000 residents of Channuwala village today have the benefit of uninterrupted supply of electricity.

In a country which has the largest population of cattle in the world – roughly 300 million cows and buffaloes as per the 2012 Livestock census – harnessing alternate sources of energy from cowdung and biomass should have been accorded topmost priority. In addition, in a country endowed with abundant sunlight and a vast coastline, solar and wind power should have reduced the dependence on coal-based energy installations. But it didn’t happen.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now laying stress on renewal and clean sources of energy, and has promised to generate 100,000 MW from solar power in next few years. This is heartening by all standards.

This brings me to the media excitement that I see all around from the so-called ‘breakthrough’ that has been achieved in Indo-US nuclear deal. With India accepting to shoulder the liability, with the assurance of putting together an insurance pool and thereby allowing the suppliers of nuclear equipment to go Scott free in case of a nuclear mishap, the question that nuclear energy is safe and clean is itself being defeated. Why should nuclear suppliers insist on not being held responsible in case of a nuclear accident if the technology is safe?

I don’t understand why and how nuclear energy is being called safe and clean. If it was so safe and clean I see no reason why the world should be increasingly moving away from nuclear energy. After the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, Germany has vowed to shut down all operating nuclear plants by 2022. In Italy, after a 94 per cent vote against nuclear power in a 2011 referendum, nuclear energy has been banned. France, which produces much of its power from nuclear reactors, too has promised to move away to safer resources by 2050. Even in the US, which has been aggressively pushing for the construction of nuclear plants in India, the entire focus of energy generation has been on shale gas.

Let’s look at the cost involved. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Between 2002 and 2008, cost estimates for new nuclear power plant construction rose from between $ 2 billion and $ 4 billion per unit to $9 billion per unit, while experience with new construction has seen costs continue to soar.” With the costs rising, the nuclear suppliers have been seeking government subsidies, including loan guarantees, tax credits. Interestingly, some estimates point to the huge burden on taxpayers, stating that the plants cost more to taxpayers than the market value of power generated.

Nuclear energy today is the most expensive.

With such an expensive source of energy, I don’t think Indian industry can be viable and competitive unless of course massive subsidies are provided to keep the nuclear plants running. If India can provide for massive subsidy support, I wonder why the same investment can’t be made for harnessing solar and wind energy. Let us not forget that way back in 1985 Forbes magazine had categorically termed the US nuclear industry “the largest managerial disaster in business history.” And this also points to the managerial failure to find a safe burial for the nuclear waste generated.

Notwithstanding the excitement and hype, many strategic analysts have said that even if India was to witness a rush for setting up nuclear plants, it would be at least 10 years before any additional energy production is possible. From the present contribution of 2 per cent, the availability of power is not expected to increase beyond 10 per cent of the total requirement from the new installation.

This brings me back to the huge potential that exists in non-conventional energy resources. In solar alone, India is presently producing only 0.5 per cent of the estimated potential of 750 GW. This estimate is based on the wastelands that can be used for solar power generation. But I see no reason why rooftop solar power generation cannot replace the household (as well as commercial establishments like hotels/hospitals/malls) use of electricity.

In case of wind, Energy Minister Piyush Goyal has already given a green signal for stepping up the existing capacity, by promising to put up 10,000 MW of wind power installations every year. Add to this the massive potential that exists in biogas and biomass, India can easily chart a new pathway in meeting its growing energy needs. Given that the crude oil prices have fallen drastically, and are expected to stay low, the challenge to build up the country’s energy needs from clean, safe and non-conventional resources is immense and untapped.