Nuclear Power - a Reliable Energy Source for the Future

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Nuclear power - 
A reliable energy source for the future
India is on the move. Indeed, one of the primary reasons why we are even having this competition is a result of the 8% plus annual GDP growth over the last 8 years. This growth has been driven by strong domestic demand, and with that electricity consumption per capita has doubled from 355KWh in 2000 to 720kWh by 2009. This is a huge increase, but in absolute terms is puny when compared to other countries globally, being only 20% and 3% of the figures for China and America respectively. Juxtapose this with the deplorable fact that about 400 million people are yet to be connected to the electricity grid and the writing is on the wall. In this regard it’s best to compare ourselves to China but it’s already clear that demand is going to soar in the coming years. 

On the supply side, the power generation figures are much gloomier, and most years hover stubbornly around the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ of 3%. Understandably power generation requires huge capital investment; even so, the pace of growth has been extremely tardy over the past 20 years. In many states (Maharashtra being the notable example) reasonably healthy power surpluses from the early 90s were allowed to stagnate into power deficits by the end of the decade, setting the stage for a huge uphill struggle to cope with the demand surge of this past decade. The net result of all this is that overall national power deficit is around 12% consistently, with no major state being power surplus. 

There can be no doubt as to what is responsible for this; poor planning and lack of foresight on the part of the Government. Thankfully, it appears to have finally woken up to the challenge, and there are hasty efforts being made to meet the XIth plan revised target of 62,500 MW with a far more ambitious target for the XIIth plan. Given this changed outlook on the part of the Government, I think this is an excellent opportunity to not only work for the short term goal of bridging the deficit, but also looking further ahead and envisioning scenarios for 2020 and beyond. 

Let’s take a step back and see exactly how we get our power from. At the moment, the predominant source is thermal – a kinder word for what are mostly coal-fired plants. Totally these contribute 64.6% of the total installed capacity. The other major contributor is hydroelectric powerwhich provides another 22.6% of total power. Both are hardly what you’d term green; coal powered plants , especially in India are inefficient and polluting whereas large scale hydroelectric projects tend to cause large scale environmental changes as well as trigger population shifts. Finally there is nuclear and renewables, which come in at 4.6% and 7.2% respectively. 

Given the scale of problems associated with large scale hydroelectric projects, it is going to extremely difficult (and not advisable from an environmental viewpoint either) to attempt to build huge hydroelectric projects. Indeed, most of the current capacity has been installed in the immediate years post-independence and there has been little progress with large scale projects in the last twenty years (the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the movements against the Tehri dam come to mind here). It is quite clear therefore, that apart from small scale hydroelectric projects that do not require massive dams on rivers, it is going to be very difficult to raise the conventional hydroelectric generation capacity by as much as is required by the growth in demand discussed above. 

It is quite an accepted view that the renewable energy sources like wind, tidal and geothermal just will not have the ability to compensate for current fossil fuel generation. Wind and waves could only be used at the coast or in elevated areas in the mountain ranges, and apart from the four monsoon months, wind patterns across the subcontinent are rather subdued. On the other hand, that very same monsoon ensures that India is one of the...
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