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This article is more than 1 year old.

Nuclear energy as enabler in India’s sustainable development goals

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In almost all forward-looking normative scenarios, nuclear energy’s positive contribution in India’s energy mix, thereby meeting development goals and climate change obligations, is promising.

Nuclear energy as enabler in India’s sustainable development goals
Off late, India has managed to deliver universal access to electricity, but still faces the dual challenge of ensuring sustainable per capita energy consumption growth while ensuring reduction in emissions and pollution. If it succeeds in providing green cooking fuel to all (staggered now at around 61 percent of household) and pick up rapid economic growth in next decade, its total primary energy demand (TEPD) is expected to grow by 63 percent. Meanwhile, India’s contribution to world’s energy-related total CO2 emission is expected to rise from 6.7 percent to 10.6 percent; therefore, achieving low-carbon energy security is critical for India.
India’s attempts to improve energy efficiency and increase the share of renewable energy up to 40 percent in its energy mix by 2022 (current installed capacity is around 38 percent), as endorsed in its National Energy Policy, are undoubtedly prudent. But fetching abundant renewable energy is not devoid of challenges; its intermittent nature, equipment imports dependency, especially given the fact that a large part of it is being manufactured in China, and lack of baseload factor compel one to think for other viable sources in which nuclear energy fits the most.
Given the wide application of nuclear and related technologies already in various sectors including food and agriculture, medicine, water resources management, etc., along with electricity generation, “the nuclear field highlights the breadth of opportunities for science and technology to add value on a micro-economic level—and thus to support development writ large”, as asserted by the Director General of IAEA Yukiya Amano in November 2015. For India, nuclear energy and related technology contribute towards achieving all Sustainable Development Gaols (SDGs), and most directly Goal-7 that aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by the year 2030.
Though India will be able to achieve major targets of SDG-7 by 2030, its national determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement of reducing CO2 emission intensity by 33-35 percent would be difficult to meet. Given the inevitability of exponential growth of India’s energy consumption and production in the years ahead and consequent increase in greenhouse gas emission (currently energy sector alone accounts for 74 percent of India’s greenhouse gas emission), decarbonising electricity generation, therefore remains a key priority. More importantly, in the COVID-19 era, reducing pollution and emissions assumes even greater importance for India.
Realistically, to attain rapid economic growth and achieve the five-trillion-economy target, India has to heavily industrialise for which the availability of baseload electricity/energy is a prerequisite. As less dependency on fossil fuel is compelling to curb emission levels, nuclear energy seems to be the most favourable alternative, viable, and green option for baseload electricity generation. Although energy use in India has almost tripled since 2000, energy consumption per capita is one third of the global average still. An average American citizen consumes on average 11 times more than an Indian citizen.
To ensure a reasonable standard of living (if not American standard) to all following the SDGs prescriptions, the per capita consumption of energy has to increase sharp which will in turn give rise to per capita CO2 emissions as well. India is already the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter after China, USA, and the EU. Nuclear energy, again, can be the key to break out of the vicious circle.
Considering India’s rapid economic growth aspirations, rise in per capita energy consumption and increase in the coverage of villages with access to energy, the total energy demand is likely to rise sharply over the next few years. As per NITI Aayog estimate, the electricity component of the entire consumption itself is likely to rise 2.3 times. Can India meet the growing energy demand by heavily relying on renewables and conventional sources only? In almost all forward-looking normative scenarios, nuclear energy’s positive contribution in India’s energy mix, thereby meeting development goals and climate change obligations, is promising. Without doubt, nuclear energy brings multiple sustainability advantages over available alternatives.
Moreover, the SDGs-7 also prescribes to “enhance international co-operation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology … and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology by 2030.” India’s expanding nuclear energy network ever since the Indo-US nuclear deal, its time-tested cooperation with Russia, and own efforts to develop indigenous technology, provides ample scope to scale up the nuclear energy component in its energy mix. Besides, India can also be a partner in third countries’ nuclear energy projects in collaboration with Russia.
Currently, with 22 operational reactors India’s total nuclear power plant capacity is 6780 MWe (around 3 percent of total electricity generation) which is likely to increase to around 13,000 MWe with the completion of 8 reactors under construction around 2023. An additional 12 reactors (10 PHWRs and 2 LWRs) have been approved for construction, and 16 more are planned based on cooperation with foreign partners. India is pursuing development of nuclear power plants by using a mix of indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), and Light Water Reactors (LWRs) based on foreign technical cooperation and imported enriched uranium.
While India’s collaboration with other foreign partners have faced with numerous challenges, its dealings with Russia, especially for LWRs, have been proved sturdy, reliable, and economic. Within the framework of ‘Make in India’ and Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India), there is an enormous possibility of localisation of LWR systems with Russia’s help to bring sustainability to Indian nuclear industry, which in turn can enable India to meet its sustainable development goals.
—The author Sitakanta Mishra is Associate Professor in School of Liberal Studies of Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU), Gujarat, India. The views expressed are personal
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