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Chirag Gupta asked: Why are we inclined towards nuclear energy when the per unit cost of electricity is much higher compared to other sources of energy like solar and wind?

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  • A. Vinod Kumar replies: Countries with bigger populations and economies like India do not have the luxury of relying solely on one single source of energy. Hence, bigger nations prefer an energy mix that enables them to harness a variety of energy sources. Such diversification helps in balancing costs and creating economies of scale besides limiting the extent of environmental impact particularly when exploitation of natural resources like coal and gas has to be limited by balancing it with greater investments in cleaner energy sources including renewables and nuclear power.

    In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on renewable energy sources including wind and solar platforms. While there was immense interest in wind energy during the early years of the revolution in renewable energy, its expected potential did not materialise as it involved huge capital and land utilisation which was not commensurate with the derived output that was also subject to the incertitude of forces of nature. The same constraints were initially witnessed in solar projects as well besides the challenges of enabling the universal spread of what was then a niche technology. However, through numerous innovations including the development of portable solar platforms, their widespread manufacturing and user-friendly deployment patterns, the solar energy sector has turned around into a more feasible sector resulting in the rapid diminishing of production costs. Nonetheless, solar projects also face the problem of output sustainability when subjected to weather conditions, though the active support of governments has ensured expansive growth for this sector.

    Nuclear power, on the other hand, remains a sustainable and dependable means of energy that are not subject to the uncertainties of nature nor constrained by requirements of large-scale displacement of land and have comparatively lesser environmental implications unlike in traditional sectors like coal, hydropower and biofuels. The most important factor favouring nuclear energy, though, is its ability to provide captive and uninterrupted power, which, in fact, is the critical aspect to power large economies and industrial powerhouses as also for countries having to meet electricity requirements of large populations. The issue of the per unit cost of electricity produced by nuclear power plants (NPPs) can be effectively addressed in the long-term through economies of scale. Despite over 70 years of NPP operations in India and indigenous nuclear energy infrastructure in place, it should be noted that the total nuclear output capacity in India remains at around 6780 MWe, far below the original target of 10,000 MWe for the first of the three-stage nuclear energy programme.

    While plans are afoot to rapidly expand the NPP infrastructure particularly through new projects with foreign participation envisaged under the India-United States nuclear deal, the prospects of nuclear power production in India becoming considerably cheaper is weighed on the initiation of the second stage of India’s nuclear energy programme. The extensive deployment of fast breeder reactors (FBRs) in the second stage is expected to drastically cut production costs as these reactors will be powered by recycled spent waste even while enabling the conversion of thorium into fissile for the new generation (advanced heavy water) reactors being currently developed at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) for the third stage. Considering that India has among the world’s biggest thorium deposits, one could foresee a future scenario when electricity from NPPs will be the cheapest in the energy mix.

    For more on nuclear energy expansion plans, please refer to my following publication:

    A. Vinod Kumar, “India-US Nuclear Deal: Only Half Realised After a Decade”, MP-IDSA Comment, July 21, 2015.

    Posted on October 23, 2020

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.