Why we need nuclear power

Solar power may be price competitive, but it is subject to vagaries of weather

Written by Kirit Parikh | Published:June 30, 2017 12:40 am
narendra Modi, vladimir putin, kudankulum nuclear power, kudankulum, nuclear power, russia, india-russia ties, India’s potential for hydro power is 150,000 MW at 35 per cent load factor that means around 460 billion units per year. (File photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed an agreement early June with President Vladimir Putin for two more units of nuclear plants at Kudankulam. Earlier, the government announced an agreement with international companies to set up 7,000 MW of nuclear plants for Rs 70,000 crore based on our domestic technology. Its wisdom has been questioned by many commentators.

I have long argued that from a long-term perspective India needs to keep the nuclear power option alive. This is because we are short of oil, gas and even coal. More than 70 per cent of petroleum products, 40 per cent of gas and 20 per cent of coal consumption are based on imports. Our known extractable coal reserves will run out in about 40 years if our coal consumption keeps growing as it has over the past 25 years.

As a result in the report of the expert group on integrated energy policy in 2006 that I chaired, we had argued that for India, from a long-term perspective, renewable energy is inevitable and nuclear option should be retained as an insurance. Thus I had applauded the Bush-Manmohan Singh agreement on nuclear energy. The energy scene has changed dramatically since then and one needs to revisit that conclusion.

To push renewables, the government launched the National Solar Mission in 2009 with a target of setting up of 20,000 MW of solar plants by 2022. It was recognised that solar plants would need subsidy through a guaranteed price via feed-in-tariff (FIT) at which solar electricity would be purchased. However, to ensure that the subsidy does not kill competition and incentives to cut cost and innovate, the FIT was to be competitively bid. This has worked out beyond expectations. In the first auction in 2010, when the expected bid was Rs 15 per unit, the bid came to Rs 13.50. The latest bid in May 2017 asks for a FIT of Rs 2.44 per unit for a 500 MW plant at Bhadla Solar Park 3 in Rajasthan. There are, however, some subsidies involved in this. The plant has been provided guaranteed purchase of the power generated and the transmission and distribution charges have been waived. Even accounting for all these, the long-term levelised tariff would be around Rs 3 per unit. This may be compared with the average rate of Rs 3.20 per unit of coal power generated by NTPC, which owns some 50,000 MW of coal power plants. Besides, the price of solar photovoltaic (PV) plants is expected to fall further.

The threat of climate change and the concern for environmental pollution are likely to constrain the development of coal-based plants. Installation of electrostatic precipitators to trap particulate matter, fuel desulphurisation plants, etc, to reduce local air pollution will increase the cost of coal power. They will still not reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. CO2 emissions can be dealt with by capturing it from the exhaust and storing it underground. Apart from the long-term reliability of underground storage of CO2, the cost of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is quite high and requires more energy, so the cost of power would be some 30 to 50 per cent higher. Thus India cannot rely on coal power for long.

Solar power is available only when the sun is shining unless it is stored in some way. In a year, a solar PV plant of one KW capacity generates no more than 2,000 KWh of electricity, whereas a coal-based or nuclear plant can generate around 7,000 KWh/year per KW of capacity. To provide power when the sun is not shining, we need some balancing power. It could be coal-based, gas based, nuclear, hydro power or through stored electricity.

India’s potential for hydro power is 150,000 MW at 35 per cent load factor that means around 460 billion units per year. It is unevenly distributed across months. The generation from run-of-the river plants during the lean month may be as low as 10 per cent of generation during the peak month. If the country is to grow at seven or eight per cent till 2050 and even where energy efficiency is pushed, we will need around 8,000 bkWh. If we were to push electrical vehicles it could be as much as 12,000 bkWh.

Thus even when we have fully developed our hydro capacity, we will still need balancing power. Since gas has to be imported, it is a limited option. Nuclear plants have been run in the past with more or less constant load. However, with some design change it should be possible to run them in a load following mode. France has been operating some nuclear plants in this mode.

If the cost of battery storage comes down dramatically, we can envisage a system running entirely on solar, wind and limited hydro power. However, having some nuclear power helps diversify the system and adds to energy security.

The cost of nuclear electricity will depend on how it is financed. With a capital cost of Rs 10 crore per MW, with a debt/equity ratio of 4/1, debt interest of 12 per cent, return on equity of 15 per cent, and annual generation of 7,000 MWh, the capital charge is Rs 2.10/kWh. The operating cost at 2.5 per cent of capital cost comes to Rs 0.36/kWh and fuel cost for pressurised heavy water reactor is Rs 0.16/kWh. The total cost is Rs 2.62/kWh. If we compare these with similar financing charges of solar PV with storage that gives 6,000 MWh/year it will cost Rs 2.75/unit and cheap storage systems are yet to be developed.

Thus, if we can install the nuclear plants without delay and within budget, they are economically attractive. The decision to set up 7,000 MW of nuclear plants makes economic sense.

The writer is chairman, Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe) and former member, Planning Commission

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  1. M
    mohd arif dar
    Jul 2, 2017 at 12:59 pm
    resource saving is resource generating, India is a vast country with more the 65 percent rural population where electricity is not properly regulated no doubt there are the power cut in rural areas but trust me in rural areas most of the people even if they have LPG facility people wait for electricity to cook their food on a heater which is high voltage and efficient. Even in big cities small and, big hotel industries pay certain to power official to escape from huge bills of a fee. use of cheap bulb is widespread in rural areas use of led bulb is need of the hour
    1. R
      Ramesh Chhabra
      Jun 30, 2017 at 7:41 pm
      I do not understand why we are chasing Nuclear powers. God has given India Natural (Sun) resources a lot. If we knock the door of Nuclear power agreements, this requires 20 years for generation. Whereas, within two years we can generate electricity, more than requirements through solar. Indian railways is a big consumer, whatever electricity generated in India. We can run major Indian railways without fuel i.e. through solar and wind, within short period.
      1. R
        Jun 30, 2017 at 5:30 pm
        Absolute need is to keep the nuclear energy live in India. And to expose anti-Nationals like Udayakumar who along with his 1000s of church followers created long demonstrations, only to expose himself how much he is inclined to the western world to compromise India' growth.
        1. s
          Jun 30, 2017 at 4:49 pm
          As project professional its always good to see new project of higher complexity coming up , but we need to see viability of such things as well. Presently installed capacity of india power is 330260 MW where as peak demand is 159541 MW ( source CEA) giving capacity utilization at 49 . it clearly show india has at least around 75000 to 100000 Mw surplus capacity considering 75-80 PLF which all good running power house can easily attained. Even if we discount it by 50 we have additional capacity of 50000 MW. Present growth in demand is hovering around 4- 5 we don’t require additional power for at least 5-6 years without considering any addition on solar and non renewable. Now present rate of increase in solar power is more tha 20-30 and as per NITI ayog govt plan to put up 175000 MW by 2022 ie 5-6 years from now which can be consumed either by stopping thermal generation or keeping solar idle which is least likely . Under the above is it prudent to use 70000 cr for nuclear
          1. E
            Employ Ment
            Jun 30, 2017 at 3:50 pm
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            1. P
              Parth Garg
              Jun 30, 2017 at 2:23 pm
              There is a policy paralysis on the front of solar power.
              1. A
                Abhay Sandwar
                Jun 30, 2017 at 1:06 pm
                Against all available situations in power segment ultimate answer is Nuclear Power and Govt initiative and concern in this regard is well planned along with coal availability in particular. Prime Minister Modi and Coal Minister Piyush Goel steps are laudable along with domestic devices to come up to meet the energy demand .
                1. B
                  BAPTY.s Seshasayee
                  Jun 30, 2017 at 12:32 pm
                  In a large Northern European country like Germany, the Germans have switched off Nuclear Power and gone heavily on Solar, that too roof top solar. With regard to power, if we as a large country. Clean power, we need to invest in All renewables, hydro and Nuclear. Advantage in nuclear is we also have indigenous technology working power plants. Better to sensibly operate coal power plants with improved clean technology, like washing coal, electro static precipitators and improve operating efficiency of thermal plants. In India we can use URJA ENERGY SINCE SOLAR IS AVAILABLE ALMOST 9 to 10 months in many states. We need to do aggressive R D on Battery technology. For solar power .MODIJIS GOVT WITH PIYUSH GOYAL AS POWER MINISTER IS DOING GOOD JOB. BY 2018 December most of Bharath will have power, including remote villages. Thank u.
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