Fossil fuels that emerged during the Iron Age are a major cause of environmental degradation. But these non-renewable energy sources are still powering civilization in the 21st century.
Of course, the world has limited options to replace fossil fuel which is fast depleting; but humanity cannot rely indefinitely on non-renewable sources for most of its energy needs.
The emphasis on renewables is prudent but their intermittent nature and low baseload factor circumscribe their heavy usage. Meanwhile, nuclear energy with a much higher capacity factor and lesser stress on climate has unfairly not been appreciated enough. Safety concerns, rather than absolute facts, have often governed national nuclear energy policies. The world needs to reconcile with the fact that advancement in reactor technology has made nuclear energy safer, feasible and more sustainable than fossil fuel.
On the basis of sporadic nuclear disasters that caused relatively small fatalities during the last seven decades, a negative perception on nuclear technology has been built. Undeniably, fatal incidents in the nuclear sector have resulted in the loss of precious lives but the sensitive nature of the nuclear sector has earned it more negative attention in comparison to other industries.
At present, nuclear power supplies about one-sixth of global electricity requirements and has the potential to provide electricity on a large scale with practically no greenhouse gas emissions. Post-Fukushima, there has been a visible drive for phasing out of nuclear projects in some European countries, who plan a major shift towards natural gas, although ignorant of the fact that natural gas usage will cause more emissions.
As per the research findings by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen, “If nuclear power never existed, the energy it supplied certainly would have been generated through fossil fuels instead, which would have caused much higher pollution-related mortality and GHG emissions per unit energy produced.”
Their findings further suggested that nuclear power prevented an average of 1.8 million net deaths worldwide and an average of 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent net green-house-gas emissions between 1971 and 2009. If a complete nuclear energy phase-out is undertaken, it would lead to an average of 420,000 to 7 million deaths and 80-240 GtCO2-eq emissions globally.
In order to minimize the impact of climate change, while also meeting the increasing demand for cheaper but sustainable energy, nuclear energy needs to be rapidly expanded. This cannot be achieved without addressing the safety concerns involved with nuclear technology. With seven decades of operational experience and lessons from past few disasters, nuclear technology is maturing with innovations.
One such engineering innovation is the use of liquid sodium, instead of water, to cool the reactor at a lower pressure, which helps avoid meltdowns. Other technologies like the small modular reactor (SMR), generation IV variants (molten-salt reactor), advanced fission and fusion reactors, etc. have the potential to revolutionize the nuclear industry. In America, China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia, and elsewhere, a dozen new nuclear reactor designs are at advanced stages of planning or construction, while several others are at the primitive research and development stage.
If sincere patronage is given, the emerging nuclear technologies will herald a paradigm shift in the nuclear industry. Such reactor variants have been licensed or deployed in Russia and China only. Indian nuclear establishment was reportedly in the final throes of developing a (conceptual) design for Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) as the stepping stone to its third stage of the nuclear energy program.
Safety is touted as the key factor in any country’s nuclear programme. Furthering its commitment towards the peaceful use of nuclear energy, India has strengthened its collaboration with Russia. The two countries have collaborated well on the setup of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Work on units 3 and 4 of Kudankulam NPP has progressed significantly with the undeterred cooperation from Rosatom, the Russian state energy corporation. Six VVER-1000 reactors are to be built at Kudankulam with Russian support.
Notably, the VVER-1000 reactors meet enormous safety standards. It combines various active safety systems and passive safety systems, which have resulted in the maximum protection of the plant from internal and external risks. Modern VVER units also feature active heat removal systems, hydrogen combiners and core catchers, which are all instrumental in ensuring the safety of the units during natural or man-made hazards.
Apart from the safety aspects, nuclear energy is being used for other important tasks such as desalination, production of hydrogen, space heating, process-heat applications, extraction of carbon from CO2 to combine with hydrogen to create synthetic liquid fuels, etc. The need of the hour, therefore, is to hasten the process of innovation in nuclear technology and not abandon or demonize it. After all, we need to introspect whether nuclear technology failed us or we failed nuclear technology.
--Dr Sitakanta Mishra is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Pandit Deendayal Energy University, Gujarat. The views are personal.