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An in-between option

Nuclear power is neither evil nor the solution to India’s energy needs

The subject of nuclear energy has grown fraught in the past few weeks, with the nuclear plant at Kudankulam set to start generation, even as radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant reach a new deadly high. Global commentary remains divided along extremes. But the reality is mundane and falls somewhere in between — nuclear power is neither the epitome of evil nor a silver bullet for India’s energy needs. It is but an option for a country with enormous energy needs.

Germany plans to shut down all of its 17 nuclear sites by 2022, and Japan went without nuclear power for almost two years post Fukushima, until the election of a pro-nuclear power PM. Germany is financially and socially in a position to choose to forgo nuclear power in favour of alternatives, including renewables. These remain expensive — the German feed-in-tariff for small-scale rooftop solar power is still over Rs 10/ kWh. In contrast, utilities in India retail electricity at approximately Rs 4/ kWh, on average.

The economics of it is only one basis for comparing options. Different types of power are not equal. Proponents of nuclear power point out that it is carbon-free, which is only true at the fuel level, and not at the lifecycle level (especially once construction and decommissioning are factored in), but nuclear power fares well in comparison with coal. If the goal is carbon reduction, there are other options that are cheaper in terms of per tonne of carbon abated. But nuclear power offers something most of these options cannot: large, predictable baseload power.

Kudankulam’s nuclear reactors are 1,000 megawatt in size, which makes them the largest single generation units in India. The Southern Grid desperately needs baseload power, more so than the rest of India. The price of electricity from Kudankulam (reportedly around Rs 3/kWh), even with cost overruns, is expected to be lower than the price of energy from many new coal plants, especially if one factors in the rapidly rising costs of coal. But more than costs, there are issues of safety, alternatives, uncertainty and perception. The last is critical.

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