[Updated] Nuclear Power Generation in India – Complete Analysis

In the UN General Assembly (UNGA), India declared that nuclear energy is crucial for meeting the challenge of climate change and suggested measures to increase its public acceptance. It has to be noted that, nuclear energy has been receiving stiff opposition and some countries even plan to phase out their nuclear power plants due to their inherent risks. Recently, India’s largest indigenously designed PHWR, KAPP-3, achieved criticality, becoming another feather to the cap of Make in India initiative.

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What was the proposal of India?

  • India said that nuclear energy is important for meeting the challenges of rising energy demand, address climate change concerns, reduce fossil fuel prices and ensure energy security.
  • India also called for IAEA to support efforts by countries for increasing public acceptance of nuclear energy and continue to assist them in starting or expanding their nuclear energy programmes.

How do Nuclear reactors work?

  • Nuclear power comes from nuclear fission process in which the atoms are split apart to form smaller atoms releasing energy.
  • Nuclear Fission takes place inside the reactor of the nuclear power plant. At the centre of the reactor is the core, which contains nuclear fuel such as uranium.
  • Nuclear power plants use the released energy to heat water for producing steam.
  • The steam is then used to spin large turbines that generate electricity.

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What are the advantages of nuclear power?

  • Climate change: Nuclear reactors don’t produce greenhouse gases like thermal power plants = Increase power generation without contributing to global warming and climate change.
  • Steady supply: Unlike solar, wind or hydroelectric power plants, the nuclear reactor can provide a steady supply of electricity as they can operate without sun and wind and are not affected by fluctuations in water availability like hydroelectric plants.
  • Less fuel: Nuclear power plant requires less amount of fuel and produce more energy = savings on raw materials, transport, handling, and extraction of fuel. The cost of nuclear fuel (uranium) is 20% of the cost of electricity generated.

What are the disadvantages of nuclear power?

  • Accidents: Current nuclear reactors work by fission reactions. In case the control systems fail = generating continuous reactions causing a radioactive explosion that would be virtually impossible to contain. The two good examples of nuclear accidents are Chernobyl and Fukushima.
  • Nuclear waste: One of the major disadvantages is the difficulty in the management of nuclear waste. It takes several years to eliminate its radioactivity and risks. In 2014, India generated 4 tonnes of nuclear waste for every Gigawatt of nuclear energy produced annually.
  • Limited life: The constructed nuclear reactors have an expiration date. When reaching it, they’ve to be dismantled and reconstructed. So countries have to maintain a regular number of operating reactors at all times for electricity supply.
  • Cost: The investment for the construction of a nuclear plant is very high and must be recovered as soon as possible since nuclear plants have a limited life. This increases the cost of electricity generated.
  • Security: Nuclear power plants are one of the main targets of terrorist organizations. In November 2019, the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu was attacked by the DTrack malware.
  • Sovereignty: Nuclear plants create external dependence. For example, India is relying on several countries like the US, Russia, Australia etc. for raw material and technology.
  • Military utility: The most alarming disadvantage is the use of nuclear power in the military industry. The first use of nuclear power was the development of two nuclear bombs on Japan during World War II. This was the first and the last time that nuclear power was used in a military attack. Later, many countries signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), however, the risk that nuclear weapons could be used in the future will always present.

How nuclear fusion different from fission?

  • Fission is the breaking down of a heavy atom into smaller atoms and releases energy.
  • Fusion is the binding together of two smaller atoms into a large atom and releases energy.
  • There are two main advantages of fusion over fission
    • Fusion produces more energy than fission reactions.
    • Fusion does not produce radioactive, toxic waste products as fission does.
  • So why do we use fission reactors rather than fusion reactors?
    • Because so far, nobody has been able to develop a nuclear reactor that generates more energy than it takes in.
    • Fusion produces more energy, however, it also needs large amounts of energy to get started.
    • But if a large enough reactor could be built and started with a large amount of energy, the energy produced can cause a self-sustaining reaction that could generate energy for a long time. The ultimate example of a fusion reactor is the Sun.

What is the stand of different countries?

  • Several nations in Europe are moving away from nuclear energy mentioning its risks.
  • Germany is committed to phasing out all nuclear power plants by 2022 and Belgium, Switzerland and Italy also plan to shut their plants down.
  • India is committed to its 3 stage nuclear power programme which aims at producing a sustainable generation of energy through its vast Thorium reserves.

What is India’s 3 stage Nuclear Power Programme?

The programme was formulated in the 1950s by Dr. Homi Bhabha to secure India’s long-term energy independence, through the use of uranium and thorium reserves found in the monazite sands of coastal regions of South India. The ultimate target is the Thorium based reactors (stage 3). The 3 stages are as follows:

Stage 1: Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR)

  • It uses natural uranium to produce energy.
  • Plutonium-239 is the by-product.
  • Why Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) rather than Light Water Reactor (LWR)?
    • PHWR uses un-enriched uranium. LWR required enriched uranium (Enriched Uranium is the type of Uranium in which the percentage composition of Uranium-235 increased through the process of isotope separation).
    • It would be easier to build heavy water production facilities than uranium enrichment facilities.
    • India could domestically produce the PHWR components as opposed to LWRs.
    • Moreover, the by-product Plutonium-239 would be used for the second stage.

Stage 2: Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR)

  • It involves using Plutonium-239 (stage 1 by-product) and Uranium-238.
  • Plutonium 239 undergoes fission to produce energy, while the uranium-238 transmutes to additional plutonium-239.
  • Once the required amount of plutonium-239 built up, then Thorium will be used in the reactor to produce Uranium-233 which is used for the Stage 3.
  • It is called a breeder reactor because it produces as much fissile material as they consume.

Stage 3: Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) / Thorium based reactor

  • The main purpose of this stage to achieve a sustainable fuel cycle.
  • It uses both Thorium along with Uranium-233 (produced from Stage 2) to produce energy.
  • Thus India’s vast thorium reserve would be exploited in this stage using a thermal breeder reactor.

Why thorium was reserved for the final stage?

  • Despite significant availability, the use of Thorium in the generation of energy has certain challenges as follows.
  • Thorium itself is not a fissile material and hence cannot undergo fission to produce energy = It can only be used along with fissile material such as enriched Uranium, Plutonium or Uranium-233.
  • Thus the first two stages are meant to build-up sufficient fissile material to be used in the third stage as follows
    • Stage 1: Uranium 238 (in natural uranium) -> Energy + Plutonium 239 (used in stage 2)
    • Stage 2: Plutonium 239 + Uranium 238 + Thorium -> Energy + Uranium 233 (used in stage 3).
    • Stage 3: Uranium 233 + Thorium -> Energy + More Uranium 233. It is Uranium 233 that generates energy. Thorium keeps transmuting to Uranium 233 that produces energy = sustainable fuel cycle.

What are the benefits of thorium-based reactors?

  • Thorium is more abundantly found in India compared to uranium, for which the country has to rely on imports.
  • Less nuclear waste.
  • More nuclear energy.
  • It uses nuclear fuel more efficiently.
  • The major fear of producing nuclear energy is that it can be used to make nuclear bombs. But it is much more difficult to make nuclear bombs with the fissile material created in Thorium fuelled reactors compared to Uranium fuelled reactors.

What is the present state of the programme?

  • After decades of operating pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWR), India is finally set to start the second stage.
  • In March 2018, the 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (Stage 2) at Kalpakkam produced 30 MW for the first time in its 32 year life cycle.
  • It is estimated that it would take India many more FBRs and at least another 4 decades before sufficient fissile material built-up for launching the third stage.
    The solution is, therefore, to procure fissile material from the international market, however, its import has been affected by several treaties and complications like NPT, nuclear safeguards etc.

What is KAPP-3 and why is it significant?

  • In July, KAPP-3, the 3rd unit of Kakrapar Atomic Power Project, achieved its first criticality and is ready to generate power. The project started in late 2010.
  • Criticality is the stage when each fission event in the reactor releases sufficient number of neutrons to sustain a series of reaction i.e. stage when controlled self-sustaining chain reaction takes place.
  • This is India’s first 700 MWe unit and has been deployed at Kakrapar in Gujarat.
  • 4 units of these new reactors are being built at Kakrapar and Rawatbhata.
  • These new reactors are to be the backbone of a new 12 reactors fleet which received administrative approval and financial sanction from the government in 2017. These reactors are to be set up in fleet mode.

Significance

  • It is the largest variant of the PHWR indigenously developed. It is being described as ‘a shining example of Make in India’.
  • It is a landmark in Indian domestic civilian nuclear program as till now, the largest of its kind that was indigenously developed was the 540 MWe PHWRs– like the ones deployed in Tarapur of Maharashtra.
  • It is an improvement in terms of technology:
  1. The PHWR design has been optimized. The 700 MWe unit’s design has addressed the issue of excess thermal margin. Thermal margin is the extent to which the reactor’s operating temperature is below its maximum operating temperature.
  2. The unit has an improved economies of scale without involving any significant design changes (from the 540 MWe reactors).
  • The unit has better safety features:
    1. PHWR technology itself has many safety features like the use of thin walled pressure tubes, unlike in pressure vessel type reactors. This enables distribution of ‘pressure boundaries’ to these tubes and lowers the severity of consequences in case of an accident.
    2. In addition to this, the new 700 MWe unit’s design includes a dedicated ‘Passive Decay Heat Removal System’. This system removes from the core, the heat released by radioactive decay (called decay heat) without the need for operator’s involvement. This enhances the safety.
    3. This system is similar to the Generation III+ plants’ technology adopted for reducing the possibility of the 2011 Fukushima type accidents.
    4. It has steel lined containment to reduce chances of any leakage.
    5. Its containment spray system reduces the pressure in case of accidental loss of coolants.
  • The higher capacity units are to constitute a major part of India’s plans to expand from the current capacity of 6,780 MWe (constituting less than 2% of total installed capacity) to 22,480 MWe by 2031.
  • These units will give valuable experience for developing the next level of reactors, 900 MWe PWRs.
  • Along with this, isotope enrichment plants are being developed to supply the enriched uranium to fuel the new generation reactors.
  • African nations have begun to show interest in Indian nuclear power plants as the climate change phenomenon is affecting their hydropower generation capacity. The Indian PHWRs are well suited to their demand loads.

Conclusion

Nuclear power capacity addition in India has been slow and the contribution of the nuclear power to the total energy mix has been meagre over the years. India has struggled to move beyond the initial stages of its Nuclear Power Program. What efforts were taken at capacity addition was affected by protests and wariness especially after the Fukushima accident in Japan. However, the recent efforts at expediting the capacity building aided by the fleet mode approvals and financial sanctions are expected to revive the growth in this sector. The recent KAPP-3 feat is an indication that indigenisation sentiment currently prevailing in the country can be channeled to yield productive results.

Practice question for mains

Discuss the significance of nuclear energy in India’s renewable energy goals. Considering the impact of nuclear accidents like the 2011 Fukushima disaster, should India proceed to increase its nuclear power generation capacity? (250 words)

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