Thursday, July 17, 2008

An apolitical view on Nuclear Deal & India's Energy Security

It is really commendable for Anil Kakodkar as chief of Atomic Energy Commission to accept reality and make a public statement “if we do not do it now, history will not forgive us”. He has, however, not elaborated constraints India is now facing except shortage in nuclear fuel supply. Statements from most of the political parties, both for and against, are full of rhetoric and pseudo idealism, not having any relevance to reality.

What is our energy requirement?Since we do not have any clear concept of our energy requirement, a few decades back one chief minister in West Bengal diverted fund for a thermal power plant for the construction of an indoor stadium with a myopic statement “Are we going to eat power?” That decision not only plunged the whole state into severe power shortage but also prompted many industries to relocate elsewhere. We do not eat power but we can not eat without power!

The energy requirement for a country is having a direct co-relation with its GDP growth depending on its living standard and its position in the development scale. Normally it varies between 0.7 to 2.5 times the GDP, inversely proportional to living standard. For 1% GDP growth, the energy requirement will grow by about 0.7% for USA and 2.5% for the least developed country. For India with its present state of development the factor is approximately 2 out of which a factor of 1.5 could be assumed for power generation. If we consider an average GDP growth of 7% (more than that on a sustainable basis will be a foolish thinking with any form of coalition government; in democracy you have the advantage of digging your own grave), 1.2 as the factor for electricity and our present installed capacity of 1, 40,000 MW (without captive plants), our projected requirement for 2030 will be about 7, 44, 000 MW! That means from 2008 onwards we have to install approximately 27,500 MW per year till 2030 to sustain our modest growth. Power requirement by 2050 will about 18,50,000 MW, even considering lower average GDP growth of 6% and 5% for the successive two decades beyond 2030! Even with this staggering growth in power generation, if at all happens, we will still remain below world average in per capita power consumption and least in BRIC!

Oil peril:When oil price jumped to US$ 1 per barrel in 1973 just after Yom Kippur war, people started cycling on Auto Bahn on Sundays to conserve oil. Lots of closed coal mines which were non-viable when oil was cheap were opened. From that level oil is now US$ 147 per barrel. For the last 30 years there was no new major addition to global oil reserves and the oil production has peaked now at 85 mbd. Considering projected oil requirement of 120 mbd in 2030, we are not going to get enough oil even at US$ 200 or more! No body also knows how long the world oil reserve is likely to last.

Since our indigenous oil and gas production could hardly meet 40% of our demand, as of to-day, we have to de-link oil from our energy requirement because of prohibitive cost much before it is exhausted. The transport sector which is the oil/gas guzzler needs to be
converted to electric and hybrid propulsion to save oil import bill. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones but we found a better alternative.

Available options and constraints:Till now bulk of our generating capacity is based on fossil fuel (thermal), mostly coal with a small percentage from water resources (hydro power) and a minuscule percentage from nuclear and others.

Coal:Coal is our main stay for our thermal plants and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Main problem with coal is however pollution and carbon emission. China has gone in for coal fired plants in a big way disregard of environmental consideration. The question is whether we should follow China even with 40% ash in our indigenous coal? Besides manufacturing capacity constraint, described later, this would also require massive modernization of coal mines and transportation sector if we want to avoid logistic nightmare.

Extractions of coal-bed methane, sea-bed methane (nodules) as well as conversion of coal to synthetic oil are in various stages of development but none could become our major source for energy in the near future.

Hydro Power:Total potential for hydro-electricity, which is very clean with a very low running cost, is about 1,25,000 MW with about 56,000 MW under exploitable category. It should be exploited to its full potential. However, besides the manufacturing constraint as described later, it is also plagued with high capital cost, long gestation period, large scale displacement of population, ecological disbalance due to inundation. More over most of the potential is located near the politically sensitive N.E. region including Arunachal Pradesh. Even after full exploitation, hydel power will not contribute more than 10% of our power requirement even in 2030.

Bio-fuels:Ethanol as an alternative though technically viable, it is likely to cause severe food shortage. Production of 100 liters of ethanol requires 300 kg of grain which can feed about two Indians for a complete year. Bio-diesel from Jhatropha could be an alternative to fossil fuel till its cultivation is restricted to non-arable land and does not encroach on arable land due to pure economic consideration. All these are, however, only icing on the cake.

Renewable Energy:On paper there are so many renewable energy sources like solar, wind power, wave etc. Though we have to try all of them simultaneously, none can meet our energy requirement to any significant percentage, besides having their own limitations. Solar panels required to produce 1000 MW will take up enter area of Manhattan Island! Similar capacity from wind power will require 3.5 times that much!

Nuclear Energy:India has gone in for three stage nuclear power generation concepts eventually to exploit huge reserve of Thorium (U232). The stages could loosely be explained as follows:

1) 1st Stage : Uranium Fuelled Reactor (Power Reactor) :
Uranium core (0.7% U235) > Power + Plutonium (U239)
2) 2nd Stage : Plutonium Fuelled Reactor (Fast Breeder Reactor):
Plutonium (U239) core + U238 and Thorium (U232) blanket >
Power + Plutonium (U239) + Thorium (U233)
3) 3rd Stage : Thorium Fuelled Reactor (Breeder Reactor):
Thorium (U233) core + Thorium (U232) blanket > Power + Thorium (U233)

The 1st stage is operational with about 4,000 Mw installed capacity using Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) requiring natural / very low enriched Uranium (0.7% U235) . PHWR are mostly common in India and Canada. All other countries, using nuclear energy for power generation, are using Pressurized Light Water Reactors (PLWR) requiring low enriched Uranium (3.7% U235).

We have perfected design, production and commissioning of 500 MW PHWR. It has now been planned to produce 8 nos. 700 MW advance PHWR design for which is ready. For the second stage a 40 MWe Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) is working since 1985. A 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is under construction since 2003 and is likely to be commissioned in 2010/2011, which, however, looks doubtful. Two more 500 MWe PFBR are being planned in 2010-2020. The third stage is still under R&D and will depend on the techno-economical successes of the second stage.

Though our nuclear scientists have done commendable work of strategic importance and their pioneering R&D work is recognized all over the world , their effort is plagued with various constraints like nuclear apartheid, insufficient funding, poor and insufficient manufacturing base, short supply of nuclear fuels etc. In the processes there is huge time overrun in almost all the projects. Unfortunately impression for projected completion schedules for commercial exploitation of FBR and eventual BR (for Thorium) are also not realistic. Though we are under the false impression that commercial exploitation of Thorium is around the corner, it may take more than 30 years! Japan, even with its excellent technological base, huge financial commitment (13 billion Yen in FY07), accesses to top end products from USA, is only hopeful of commercial exploitation of FBR technology not earlier than 2050 (2030 being most optimistic). Development of BR for Thorium and its commercial exploitation is likely to take a few more decades thereafter! Most of our older generation atomic experts are mentally in Nehruvian era and are quite confused between strategic consideration & commercial exploitation! Frankly speaking we are yet to achieve commercial exploitation of nuclear energy in India.
Extremely Poor Manufacturing Base as the Main Constraint:
BHEL with an installed annual capacity of producing equipment required for 7,500 MW is still, more or less, the only production facility we have both for thermal and hydel power plants. Who is going to produce equipment for balance 20,000 MW per year?

Before Dr. Manmohan Singh initiated the reform under Rao’s government the entire heavy engineering industry was languishing with excess capacity which changed drastically when the effect of the reforms started taking the effect. However, the growth in production was mainly due to better utilization of available capacity with hardly any addition in actual manufacturing capacity mostly due to lack of reform in financial sector and labour laws (constraint of coalition government).What ever manufacturing capacity we had in the heavy engineering sector, both in public and private, was gobbled up with the simultaneous expansion in all conceivable sectors like steel, power, material handling, defence, ship building and other forms of infrastructural requirement due to the economic boom that followed.

What are the viable options to bridge the energy gap?There are only two sources which have enough potential to bridge the energy gap – Coal with its associated logistic, carbon emission and other pollution problem or Nuclear Energy which is clean with minimum carbon emission and scalable to a very high per unit generating capacity. Nuclear power is also very safe. More people are killed and wounded by accidents in coal mines and oil rigs every year than in accidents in nuclear power plants since its inception. Which ever option we take, best being a mixture of both, we have to depend on import in a massive scale along with parallel creation of world class manufacturing facility, to tide over the immediate energy gap. Manufacturing base thus created will help reduce the import in the long run.

“Nuclear Energy” option, however, is not possible unless we sign “Nuclear Deal”!

If we want progress, we really do not have any choice.

Japan, the only victim of atomic holocaust, is now embracing nuclear power in a big way to take care of oil shocks and environmental consideration (CO2 emission free power generation). It is already producing 30% of its power requirement through 55 atomic reactors and is contemplating producing 40% of its power requirement through nuclear energy by 2030. If in 1994 Japan could contemplate building a Strategic Uranium Reserve for 50 years to take care of its 55 existing reactors including planned future addition, we could also do the same. Incidentally, unlike fossil fuel, the cost of Uranium is only a small fraction (2 to 3%) of the cost of nuclear power.

80% of the power generation in France is through nuclear energy, portion of which is exported to EU for about 3 billion EUR annually. France have perfected 1600 Mw super critical power reactors (PLWR) having the lowest per unit power production cost.

We may have to go for cluster plant concept of three to six 1600 MW units in one location made through BOT or BO concept either under 100% FDI or JV.

As a renowned economist Dr. Manmohan Singh could realize that unless we can break the nuclear apartheid through nuclear deal to ensure energy security there is no future for India’s economic growth. Only our economic might where energy plays a dominant role could make us one of the poles in the tri-polar world in 21st century! We have already lost one valuable year in political brinkmanship and we should not wait any further to push the deal through.



Couple of paragraphs on Hydel Power?

Debu said...

Please explain :"Second option,however,is not possible unless we sign Nuclear Deal"
Rest is fantastic funda!!

biplab said...

Shyamal, the write up already became too long. i did not elaborate on hydro since its total capacity is limited to 1,25,000 MW

biplab said...

Debu, the first option is coal and the second option is nuclear both of which are having the theoretical potential of meeting India's energy need. both the options require massive imports which is not possible for nuclear option unless we sign the deal

Unknown said...

A very well written and informative article. Great job!!

biplab said...

Dear rahul, thanks a lot that you could find time irrespective of your extremely busy schedule and personal tragedy

Raktim Dutta said...

It is indeed an enlightening piece of article on an issue that has literally landed the nation on crossroads.

I keenly look forward to interact with you when we would meet

Raktim Dutta

Rini said...

I just read the news about the PM winning the motion - you must be relieved (at least for now)...
By the way - also enjoyed the comments on your blog in the World Affairs Board - So many people are suggesting that you should write a book - Would be great if you at least listen to the "junta's opinion" :)

biplab said...

Dear Raktim, thanks! If you want to read further elaboration please visit World Affairs Board site ( search for same caption.

biplab said...

Dear rini, for last two days i could find lots of MPs, including pronab mukherjee, defending the motion were talking about "energy security" only. they could have done a better job if they had a copy of this article (opinion of WAB!)