03 March 20120 : The Hindu Editorials Notes : Mains Sure Shot
Question – Critically analyse the U.S. President pushing India for importing nuclear reactors from the U.S.
Context – The first official visit of the U.S. President to India.
- The article says that the idea of India importing nuclear reactors raises serious concerns about their cost and safety.
- The basis of the argument is that the deal which was signed doesnt let the responsibility on the builders if there is any mishap.
- Further the cost of the energy generated through the reactors is a lot greater than those from other sources.
- While Lazard, the Wall Street firm, estimates that wind and solar energy costs have declined by around 70% to 90% in just the last 10 years and may decline further in the future.
- So the article argues that on the basis of cost and safety, the 2008 deal to purchase American nuclear reactors should be called off the table.
- Analysts estimate that each of the two AP1000 units being constructed in the U.S. state of Georgia may cost about $13.8 billion. At these rates, the six reactors being offered to India by Westinghouse would cost almost ₹6 lakh crore.
- If India purchases these reactors, the economic burden will fall upon consumers and taxpayers. In 2013, we estimated that even after reducing these prices by 30%, to account for lower construction costs in India, the first year tariff for electricity would be about ₹25 per unit. On the other hand, recent solar energy bids in India are around ₹3 per unit.
- nuclear reactors can undergo serious accidents, as shown by the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Westinghouse has insisted on a prior assurance that India would not hold it responsible for the consequences of a nuclear disaster, which is effectively an admission that it is unable to guarantee the safety of its reactors.
- Nuclear power can also impose long-term costs. Large areas continue to be contaminated with radioactive materials from the 1986 Chernobyl accident and thousands of square kilometres remain closed off for human inhabitation. Nearly a decade after the 2011 disaster, the Fukushima prefecture retains radioactive hotspots and the cost of clean-up has been variously estimated to range from $200-billion to over $600-billion.
- Starting with the Tarapur 1 and 2 reactors, in Maharashtra, India’s experiences with imported reactors have been poor. The Kudankulam 1 and 2 reactors, in Tamil Nadu, the only ones to have been imported and commissioned in the last decade, have been repeatedly shut down. In 2018-19, these reactors produced just 32% and 38%, respectively, of the electricity they were designed to produce. These difficulties are illustrative of the dismal history of India’s nuclear establishment. In spite of its tall claims, the fraction of electricity generated by nuclear power in India has remained stagnant at about 3% for decades.
How is nuclear energy produced?
- It is in the ‘Nuclear fission’ where the Uranium is used, this starts off the process for nuclear power to be generated. ‘Nuclear fission is the process of atoms splitting’, so when a heavy nucleus such as Uranium splits into two smaller, lighter nuclei. In this reaction, the ‘strong nuclear force’ which is the attractive force, is acting on the ‘electrostatic force’ which is the repulsive force, these can be knocked out of balance on each other when they gain the energy from either a photon or a neutron. The two forces are affected by the gain of this other element and will try to act on each other to regain the state in which they were in, but in nuclear fission the ‘electrostatic force’ will gain more power than the ‘nuclear force’, therefore causing it to repel and for the nucleus to split apart, also releasing energy as it does so.
- To make this slightly easier to understand, imagine a load of marbles in a rough circle shape on a flat tabletop (this is going to be representing the original atoms nucleus, where all the forcing are acting the same on one another and are equal, so all the marbles/atoms are stable). ‘What if I were to then throw or roll another marble into this group of stable marbles?’ All the marbles would spread apart and move out into the space around them, this marble that is being rolled into them is acting as the photon or neutron that is being gained in the nucleus. This is unbalancing the forces and causing the atoms to all move around as they react to the change that is taking place, but seeing as all the marbles move out, and away from each other shows to us that the repelling force has gained more control, as the attractive force wasn’t able to keep them all together, and this is exactly what happens in nuclear fission.
Pros and cons:
- Nuclear power has both advantages and disadvantages. For example,
- Relatively low costs – the initial construction costs of nuclear power plants are large. On top of this, when the power plants first have been built, we are left with the costs to enrich and process the nuclear fuel (e.g. uranium), control and get rid of nuclear waste, as well as the maintenance of the plant. The reason this is under advantages is that nuclear energy is cost-competitive. Generating electricity in nuclear reactors is cheaper than electricity generating from oil, gas and coal, not to speak of the renewable energy sources (but the cost of generating electricity from renewable sources is gradually declining).
- Base load energy – Nuclear power plants provide a stable base load of energy. This can work synergistically with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The electricity production from the plants can be lowered when good wind and solar resources are available and cranked up when the demand is high.
- Low pollution – It is in most cases more beneficial, in terms of the climate crisis, to replace other energy harnessing methods we use today with nuclear power. The environmental effects of nuclear power are relatively light compared to those. However, nuclear waste is potentially harmful for both humans and the environment.
- Thorium – Reports show that with the yearly fuel consumption of today’s nuclear power plants, we have enough uranium for 80 years. It is possible to fuel nuclear power plants with other fuel types than uranium. Thorium, which also is a greener alternative, has lately been given an increased amount of attention. China, Russia and India have already plans to start using thorium to fuel their reactors in the near future. It looks like nuclear fuel is of good availability if we combine the reserves of the different types together. In other words, hopefully enough time for us to find cost-competitive greener ways of harnessing energy.
- High energy density – It is estimated the amount of energy released in a nuclear fission reaction is ten million times greater than the amount released in burning a fossil fuel atom (e.g. oil and gas). Therefore, the amount of fuel required in a nuclear power plant is much smaller compared to those of other types of power plants.
- One major problem that could occur with nuclear power is that there is always the risk that there could be a leakage of radioactive fluids, which will have a massive impact on the environment and its surroundings. These radioactive fluids that may leak from the power stations can cause cancers and very harmful illnesses in humans. So for this reason people will believe that yes, nuclear power should be banned, especially those people living around or near a nuclear power station, or those that have close relatives that may be affected if something like this were to happen.
- The world’s worst nuclear accident occurred after an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It released radiation over much of Europe. Thirty-one people died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Hundreds of thousands of residents were moved from the area and a similar number are believed to have suffered from the effects of radiation exposure.
- From this 31 innocent people died from a nuclear power accident, that’s hundreds of people left without a family member, and what if this was to happen again, but this time it could be even worse, and possibly even more people killed. Also from this event, thousands and thousands of people were once again exposed to the radiation which can cause cancerous cells in our bodies, which could lead to a number of deaths years down the line, all from this one accident that happened because of nuclear power.
- The sustainability and low pollution of nuclear energy is debatable.
- Is nuclear energy renewable or non-renewable? This is a good question.
- By definition, nuclear energy is not a renewable energy source. As I mentioned above, there is a limited amount of fuel for nuclear power available. On the other hand, you could argue that nuclear energy is potentially sustainable by the use of breeder reactors and fusion reactors. Nuclear fusion is the holy grail of harnessing energy. If we can learn to control atomic fusion, the same reactions as those that fuel the sun, we have practically unlimited energy. At the moment, these two methods both have serious challenges that need to be dealt with if we are to start using them on a larger scale.
- Waste – Saying that, although there isn’t much waste being produced, that that is produced is extremely dangerous and would have to be stored, ‘sealed up and buried for thousands of years to allow the radioactivity to die away’. During this time it has to be kept far away from any potential natural disasters such as Earthquakes, Volcanic eruptions, flooding and terrorist attacks. This can be very difficult at times.
- Keeping in mind the benefits of nuclear energy it cannot be suggested that nuclear energy should be done away with. But can definitely be said that it depends on project to project, the place the reactor is supposed to be built, the history of the builder, the question of who will be liable in case of an accident are the things that have to be crucially evaluated before giving a nod to any new project. And also about the longevity of the nuclear reactor and how to deal with the waste generated.
Note – there is another important article on Afghanistan’s future after the U.S. withdraws its forces from there. It has been covered in detail in the article of August 5, 2019.