Connecting the dots: Nuclear energy for ‘just transition’ in India

Economic Times, February 03, 2022
By Pradeep S Mehta and Sucharita Bhattacharjee

In the transition from conventional fossil fuel-based power generation to an alternative resource-based energy portfolio, nuclear energy plays a significant role to help economies achieving zero carbon footprint targets while reducing socio-economic poverty including offering alternatives to existing jobs.

India has been actively pursuing an ambitious growth trajectory in alternative source-based energy generation with the aim to significantly reduce its total carbon emissions. At the recently held 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties on climate change in Glasgow, the Prime Minister of India made a set of five declarations – ‘Panchamrit’ towards realising this goal. One of these was to increase production of nuclear power three times more than the current levels by 2031, thus reducing our reliance on carbon-emitting thermal power.

Challenges and Concerns

Among the first challenge of nuclear power generation is accidents leading to harm to humans and the ecology. Nuclear power is often projected as a cheap and environmentally benign source of energy generation. But the chances of accidents in nuclear power plants leading to radiation harm in absence of adequate precautionary measures and redressal mechanisms are moderately high. Thus, we need to ensure higher standards of safety by drawing lessons from nuclear disasters like Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island etc.

The second challenge is raw materials such as uranium etc. The discovery of a uranium mine in Andhra Pradesh along with the country’s economically extractable thorium base could partly address India’s raw material crisis for generating nuclear energy. Other than that we have also tied up with uranium producers like Australia to supply in compliance with the norms of Nuclear Suppliers Group. Nevertheless, supply and procurement of other components should not be ignored while championing nuclear energy.

Another area of growing concern is nuclear waste produced at different stages of energy generation. However, not all nuclear wastes are hazardous or difficult to treat. Concerted efforts to prepare a structured plan for effective management of these radioactive wastes should involve characterisation, segregation, handling, treatment, conditioning and monitoring.

Assessment of Costs and Benefits

Costs and benefits of nuclear power generation are at times assessed without incorporating the social, economic and environmental concerns of local people and ecology. Local communities often do not get an opportunity to let their views known to the authorities. This is in spite of the positive impact of the investment in the local economy by creating jobs.

In the absence of a definite community engagement plan and cross-sectional dialogue coupled with chronic resource limitations, it becomes difficult to accept nuclear energy as a significant contributor to the overall energy portfolio of India.

The movement against the nuclear power plant in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and protests against the Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Maharashtra have been two significant people’s resistance movements. Similarly, another nuclear proposal in Haripur, West Bengal faced severe backlash from local residents, environmentalists and the opposition political parties. However, whether the driving force behind such outcomes was local, political or vested interests, should be carefully examined.

Nuclear Energy and a Just Transition

However, it is well established that nuclear energy, regarded as the second largest source of low carbon intensive electricity production, offers multiple advantages facilitating the much-envisaged energy transition. Nuclear power has an inbuilt flexibility to address fluctuations in energy demand and supply matrix at an affordable cost, which is crucial to maintain grid stability especially in areas with a huge reliance on intermittent renewable energy generation. Further, with operational upgradations, nuclear plants can produce hydrogen and help decarbonising other sectors of the economy. However, to facilitate a ‘Just’ energy transition, it is equally important look beyond techno-economic parameters and consider the stake of local people before designing such projects.

A Possible Roadmap

While nuclear energy continues to be a tangible expression of a nation’s prestige and power, it can certainly help negating socio-economic poverty, especially in this pandemic-induced world. Following points are important to note in this regard:

* Safety, cost and efficiency are to be kept in mind while drafting action plans for nuclear energy promotion, with the local community and environment occupying a central position in the process.

* Emphasis should be on building societal awareness and decoding the negative connotations around nuclear power generation with scientific know-how.

* Securely deploying and maintaining an ecosystem to take care of nuclear waste without causing any damage to environment or human habitat is of immense importance. A monitoring system to assess the safety requirements and compliances should be in place.

* There should be an optimal regulatory regime to ensure safety standards are not flouted by anyone.

* The incentives offered to different sections of stakeholder should not be conflicting in nature.

* Nuclear energy is neither an endless nor a renewable resource as uranium reserves will start dwindling after a certain time. Therefore, phase-wise utilisation as well as maintaining a scientific energy consumption pattern are crucial for this resource to be sustained over a significant timeframe.

Building a nuclear power plant is an expensive affair. People’s first public-private partnership should be promoted with necessary policy support, free flow of authentic information and careful impact assessment on diverse stakeholders.

Mehta is Secretary General and Bhattacharjee is Policy Analyst, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank on trade, regulation and governance.

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