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Govindraj Ethiraj: The staggering cost of nuclear power


Govindraj Ethiraj  |  Mumbai 

In 2003, the led an "interdisciplinary" study resulting in an exhaustive report titled "The Future of Nuclear Power". Four years later, the study continues to be a bible of sorts for proponents of a nuclear power renaissance. And, interestingly enough, for detractors of nuclear power as well.
The opposing views sum up the debates surrounding nuclear power today. While most pro-nuclear power scientific studies and opinions claim nuclear power is safer and cheaper, they also acknowledge that cost is critical. They also argue that cost must not be seen in the absolute, rather in the context of savings in greenhouse emissions.
Last fortnight, I argued that given the cost and time overruns of nuclear power plants in India and their minuscule contribution to total capacity, they are just not worth the effort.
I admit that what you may well hear from most detractors is the worst-case scenario for anything nuclear and the best case for everything else, particularly those related to non-fossil fuels.
But I also argued that if we already generate more renewable energy in India than nuclear power (6,190 Mw versus 4,120 Mw), than what sense does it make to pursue the latter?
Assuming of course, at least for the purpose of estimation, we have no dual-use objectives for nuclear fuel or the power plants.
My little reading of the subject shows that opinions on can vary sharply. Often the best scientific brains are on opposing sides. And both can brandish figures to support their claims. But even the most optimistic do not claim that nuclear power is a bargain basement buy. And even these seem to skip the crucial matter of over-runs. And it's because of the over-runs that the fundamental viability of nuclear power must be questioned.
A Greenpeace report titled "The Cost of Nuclear Power", released in May this year, highlights the considerable delays in constructing nuclear power plants all over the world. It quotes, for instance, to show that while the estimated cost of 75 reactors in operation in the US was $45 billion, the final bill was $145 billion.
The report also points out that the average construction time for nuclear plants has increased from 66 months for completions in the mid 70s to 116 months or almost 10 years between 1995 and 2000. Greenpeace says the longer construction times are symptomatic of a range of problems including managing the construction of increasingly complex reactor designs.
In India's Tarapur III & IV, for example, the cost went from Rs 2,427 crore at start to a final figure of Rs 6,200 crore. Greenpeace figures also show that all nuclear plants in India have run massively over time even as capital costs ballooned. Greenpeace has also compiled, interestingly, details of some 14 nuclear power projects the world over where work has stalled. These are mostly in former Soviet Russia but also include Argentina and Brazil.
India's Department of Atomic Energy has an installed nuclear generation target of 20,000 Mw by 2020. Completing nuclear reactors under construction will take the capacity to 7,280 Mw. A good part of this, for instance, the Kudankulam power project, will be delayed and will have cost implications which will only emerge in later Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) reports.
The question thus is not whether nuclear makes sense. From a technology and safety perspective, India's track record is undoubtedly sound. India's skills in this sector are also good. Fuel is a question mark but it can be bought from somewhere. And finally there is the cost and effort involved in decommissioning and nuclear waste.
But the total cost picture is what is extremely unclear. Incidentally, building any new power plant is fraught with risk. This is quite evident if you look at the number of announcements that have been made over the years (including Ultra Mega Power Projects) and those that have actually fructified. On the other hand, capacity could come from anywhere. Reliance Energy's two proposed plants at Sasan and Krishnapatnam will alone add 8,000 Mw to the national grid. And there are other projects as well, all of which together dwarf the activity on the nuclear side.
The lesson here is that nuclear power is good but mostly in theory. When it comes to capacity addition, the private sector will move much faster with fossil fuel-based projects. Obviously that is not a great idea, either. But in any case that's not the thinking that really seems to be driving our nuclear power programme.
If the government is so keen to pursue this, then total costs for every component of construction "" technology, operations and disposal "" must be made completely transparent. The Department of Atomic Energy, the mother organisation for all things nuclear in India, should explain why and how it feels nuclear power is favourable over, let's say, renewables.
Interestingly, the DAE has a primary mandate of increasing the share of nuclear power in the country. Its other mandates include driving nuclear research and applications in medicine, food processing, agriculture and "basic research". One solution is to bring expand the mandate to include, maybe, renewable as well. That should not be too difficult. Once upon a time, the Electronics Corporation of India, a DAE arm, used to make economy television sets.


First Published: Tue, November 13 2007. 00:00 IST