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Govindraj Ethiraj: Dump nuclear for renewables


Govindraj Ethiraj  |  New Delhi 

I visited the Nuclear Power Corporation's Kudankulam installation, 25 km west of Kanyakumari, two years ago on a dazzlingly clear day. On paper, the project was impressive "" 2,000 Mw of fossil-free energy pumped into the country's power grid at costs that sounded affordable, at least the weighted average cost over the plant's life.
As my hosts described the project scope and timeline, I asked them when they began work. "Well, technically in 2001, though the first concrete pour was in March 2002," one of them said. "When is it supposed to be ready?" If I remember, the answer was 2007.
I didn't pay too much attention to the cost and time factors until a few weeks later when I discovered Kudankulam was actually conceptualised in 1988. It then went off the radar for ten years after the Russians, who offered to help build it, got busy with the USSR's disintegration. But it was not the Russians alone who delayed the project. Local environmental protests held it back as well. Incidentally, 2007 will end soon and Kudankulam is not ready.
I remembered Kudankulam again last week when participating in an insightful discussion on climate change hosted by the British High Commission in Mumbai. The panel was led by environmental journalist Paul Brown, author of Global Warning: The Last Chance For Change, and also had Dr Rakesh Kumar from the
Not surprisingly, one point of debate was whether nuclear power should be favoured over thermal power, a key contributor to greenhouse gases. In the exchange that followed, Kumar took the scientific standpoint that nuclear power was cleaner over the long term and thus preferable. Brown disagreed, though more for other reasons.
"Nuclear power is too expensive," he said vehemently. According to Brown, even if you ignored the safety aspects, the cost of uranium mining and enriching, running the plant, and, finally, disposing of nuclear waste was rarely presented upfront. Moreover, plants were located far from populated areas for safety reasons. Which means that at least 10% of the electricity (Brown's "local" estimates) would be lost before it reached anywhere.
So what is Brown suggesting? According to him, for the same money, every billion dollars spent on nuclear power, you could have hundreds of small- scale renewable alternatives installed, some within months. These would include solar panels, small-scale hydro and wind turbines on homes, offices and factories. Considering that homes in cities like Bangalore are increasingly turning towards solar heating for water, I am inclined to believe this. And there must be a reason for a windmill stock called Suzlon Energy to catch stock market fancy.
All the same, let's assume Brown is being a little alarmist. I would still insist on a debate on time and cost. The best case construction time for a nuclear power plant is 10 years, give or take. In India, it's mostly "give". Even internationally, it could go to 12 years. Second, cost. With the government funding the project, you can be pretty sure that there are several numbers that are not getting thrown up.
Even if there are no over-runs, we are talking about a figure close to Rs 6 crore per Mw at the very least. Which banker, I wonder, would leap at a 10-year outlay at the minimum with such a high capital cost and all sorts of hidden costs, unless it is subsidised, which is the case in most countries, including the UK, as Brown pointed out? Then how long and why should we subsidise nuclear energy particularly if we don't need to?
Even if the bankers sign off, I can bet my half-life that no nuclear plant project will take off in India without first being slapped with a battery of lawsuits and environmental protests. I know site identification is on but can you guess where the next three nuclear power generation sites in India are going to be? I have no clue but I do know that the government is trying to squeeze in two more nuclear plants into Kudankulam.
And by the way, the legislation to allow private sector firms into nuclear power has not been passed. Once again I have no clue where this stands. I can assure you, though, that this is not the easiest legislation to push through, considering that, among other things, the word nuclear, for valid and invalid reasons, is now tied to the Indo-US nuclear deal.
So given all of this and also India's general track record in big project execution, why then, I wonder, is the government not putting all this energy (in saving the Indo-US deal or propounding nuclear options) into renewables? Incidentally, we generate more than 6,000 Mw of renewable energy but only around 4,000 Mw of nuclear energy! The figures are from NPC and not mine.
So if I were Dr Manmohan Singh, I would call up President Bush and tell him that apart from our left problems, we've got a big one when it comes to reconciling the cost of nuclear power versus the returns it will give and the actual time it will take to get more projects off the ground.
Moreover, I would say, we need renewable energy quickly since we don't want to go down the polluting path that your country did. So instead of pushing nuclear, why don't you sell us some clean renewable energy producing technologies? You don't have to go too far for that, you can begin with General Electric, the company that first sold us the nuclear reactors 40 years ago. GE's big thrust nowadays, in case you have not noticed, is ecomagination.

First Published: Tue, October 30 2007. 00:00 IST