Addressing Energy Needs & Environmental Challenges
Nuclear energy can make a valuable contribution to worldwide socio-economic development. In this article, the need of nuclear energy to meet the growing energy needs, the present scenario in India and in the world, the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy for environmental safety and the international measures taken for nuclear safety are discussed. If the growing world economy continues to rely on traditional thermal energy sources, carbon emissions would significantly rise and environmental consequences like greenhouse effect, global warming, and climate change would progressively become a serious cause for concern...
- Chandrika L Kulkarni
Nuclear science and technology is one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of humankind. Nuclear science and technology is widely applied in various sectors, with over 50 years of development, such as energy, industry, agriculture, health and environmental protection, and is playing an important role in the prospering economy, and in improving peoples’ livelihoods and promoting sustainable development. With global economic development and rising energy consumption, supply of traditional energy sources is becoming more stretched, and climate change is becoming an increasingly severe challenge. Given its advantage as a clean, safe energy source that could be applied at a large scale, more and more countries are placing importance on nuclear energy. Accelerating the peaceful use of nuclear energy is the common wish and inevitable choice of many countries.
The attraction of nuclear energy is supported by the improved performance of the nuclear energy industry since the 1980s. Improvements in safety have been matched by improvements in efficiency. Nuclear plants are more economical to run, availability and productivity have increased, and there is less downtime for maintenance. The long term stability of the cost of electricity generated by nuclear power is also an important attraction.
Addressing Energy Needs
Nuclear power today accounts for 15 per cent of global electricity generation and the world now has more than half a century’s experience in handling this technology, which is equivalent to over 14,000 reactor years; expertise and confidence in the area have steadily grown. Furthermore, rising oil prices and growing environmental concerns over the last decade have led to a reconsideration of sustainable energy fuels. In this context, nuclear power has resurfaced as a keen contender for large-scale energy generation.
Sustainable growth cannot be fully restored without secure access to energy and electricity. Our obligation to future generations is to address these challenges of energy security and sustainability today. Cleaner, carbon free sources will also help to respond to growing energy demand. Projections suggest that by 2030 energy demand in the world will increase by 45 per cent and electricity consumption by 75 per cent. Nuclear energy has the potential to meet a significant part of future demand, while reducing tensions on hydrocarbon markets and alleviating the risk of global climate change.
Although nuclear power is not a panacea for all the world’s energy problems, it will continue to play an important role in the global energy mix. Growing global demand for energy throughout the 21st century will reflect continued population growth, the drive by developing countries to connect the 1.6 billion people who have no access to electricity and the 2.4 billion who have no access to modern energy systems. We have to understand that there is no development without energy, and if we need to improve the lives of one third of humanity who live on less than $2 per day, we need to increase our supply of energy and electricity. In this context, there are a number of key drivers that are fuelling increased interest in nuclear energy, in particular, energy security and the environmental benefits.
In most countries relying on the nuclear option, the costs of generating nuclear electricity, which internalise safety, radiation protection and waste management and disposal, are competitive with alternatives. According to the study published in 2005 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), based on data provided by 21 countries on 130 power plants, the average lifetime costs of generating electricity, levelised at 10% discount rate, range between 30 and 50 US $/MWh for nuclear, 35 and 60 for coal and 40 and 63 for gas.
Besides its contribution to electricity supply, which could be increased significantly in many countries, nuclear energy has the potential to broaden its market to non-electricity applications. Nuclear reactors produce heat, which can be used directly for process or district heating, to desalinate water or to produce hydrogen by different means. It offers opportunities for the nuclear power to play major role in policies to address security to supply and global climate change issues.
India has an installed electricity generation capacity of 274 GW. Whereas, it presently requires 1,100 billion kWh of electricity, which is stated to go up to 1,524 billion kWh by 2016-17, 2,118 billion kWh by 2021-22 and 3,880 billion kWh by 2031-32 considering an average GDP growth rate of 8%. As a measure to bridge this gaping hole, India has been investing heavily to augment its nuclear power generation capacity. It has already installed a few nuclear reactors and is in the process of setting up a few more. India initially plans to increase its nuclear electricity generation form present 5,780 MW to 63 GW by 2032, but the target was revised in 2011 to a more realistic 27.5 GW. The Atomic Energy Commission envisages a target of 500 GW of nuclear energy generation by 2060.
With experience of over half a decade in the field of nuclear technology, India, in the words of Dr Chidambaram, former Chairman, AEC, is ‘the only developing country that has demonstrated its capability to design, build, operate and maintain nuclear power plants, manufacture all associated equipment and components, and produce the required nuclear fuel and special materials’. Indeed, India can claim to have experience in construction, operation, and maintenance of a varied range of nuclear power plants. India has accumulated vast experience in operating Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR). India’s first prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is going to be ready for synchronisation in near future. Water (coolant) Water (moderator) Energy Reactor (WER) is of Russian design which uses horizontal orientation of the steam generator module. As far as future plans are concerned, Government of India has agreed on principle for the plants mentioned in Table 1.
The objective of Indian Government is to double the present installed capacity of 5820 MW by 2018 and more than eleven times to 63,000 MW by 2031-32.
Several analysts have argued that given India’s limited and low-grade uranium reserves, the development of the nuclear programme beyond 10,000 MWe would imply increasing dependence on uranium imports. However, this viewpoint tends to overlook the logic of India’s three stage nuclear power programme that envisages large-scale utilization of India’s significant thorium reserves. It is in order to tide over the transition from fast breeder reactors to the thorium cycle that India needs uranium. Therefore, unlike the case of coal or oil or gas, where imports appear to be a permanent reality, uranium dependency would be for a limited period of time till India graduates to the thorium cycle. As far as India’s three stage nuclear power generation is concerned, we are just at the beginning of the second stage. India is among the very few countries pursuing this technology. Even the World Nuclear Association, which is dedicated to the promotion of nuclear technology, sees little scope of development of this technology as long as abundant uranium is available. However, given the peculiarities of the Indian resource base, Dr Homi Bhabha had prescribed a three-stage programme for the country that would culminate with the exploitation of India’s large thorium reserves.
During the second half of the 20th century, it was becoming clear to the scientific community that the average environmental temperature of the earth’s surface is increasing due to human activities, which emit certain gases like carbon-dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane etc called the Greenhouse Gases (GHGs).
The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty, which extends the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The protocol binds its parties by setting internationally binding emission targets. The first commitment period was from 2008 to 2013 and the collective emission reduction target was 5.2% over 1990 levels. The second period is from 2014 to 2020, an extension targeting 18 % GHG emission cuts over 1990 levels.
As it is turning out, focusing only on renewable energy may not yield the desired results. Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power. It is essential for at least bigger developing countries to go for atomic energy option.
But the mad race for setting up nuclear power plants, owing to their chequered past, has raised a red flag over the issue. Although the world has ambitious plans regarding nuclear energy, people residing near uranium mines and nuclear reactors are paying the price for that ambition. Usually, those working directly or indirectly in the mines and those living in the surrounding areas of mines and nuclear reactors bear the brunt of harmful radiations. Poverty and illiteracy further compounds the problems, as these people usually are not aware of the harmful effects of nuclear radiation and only take notice when these effects reach alarming levels.
Projected World Energy Mix - 2035
Leakage from nuclear power poses another threat to the ambient life and property. The most prominent example has been the Chernobyl disaster. Incidents of thyroid cancer have increased among the young people exposed to the radiation. Apart from this, there has been an increase in the frequencies of Down’s syndrome, congenital abnormalities, miscarriages and pre-natal mortalities among the people exposed.
The management of radioactive waste is an important concern for governments and society at large. The volume of waste is small but its radio toxicity is high. Progress towards the construction, commissioning and operation of repositories for all types of radioactive waste should fully address this concern, and in a manner that enhances public confidence.
Also, since nuclear power plants are fundamentally heat engines, waste heat disposal becomes an issue at high ambient temperature. Droughts and extended periods of high temperature can cripple nuclear power generation, and it is often during these times when electricity demand is highest because of air-conditioning and refrigeration loads and diminished hydroelectric capacity. In such very hot weather a power reactor may have to operate at a reduced power level or even shut down.
An additional concern with nuclear power plants is that if the by-products of nuclear fission (the nuclear waste generated by the plant) were to be left unprotected it could be stolen and used as a radiological weapon, colloquially known as a 'dirty bomb.'
Environmental Safety Measures
a) International non-proliferation efforts should be strengthened, and States must comply with their respective non-proliferation obligations.
b) The operating nuclear power plants in the world have maintained an excellent safety record. The continuing safe operation of the current fleet of nuclear power reactors is essential for continued confidence in the use of nuclear technology. All States having or developing a nuclear power programme should give high priority to ensuring safety. In addition, States should develop and maintain appropriate effective physical protection measures.
c) Consideration should be given to measures that will help to ensure reliable access to nuclear fuel supply, while maintaining the normal operation of the international nuclear fuel market.
d) The safe management of spent fuel, which for some countries includes reprocessing and recycling, as well as the disposal of radioactive waste are of great importance for the sustainable development of nuclear power. Each State remains responsible for the management of its spent fuel and radioactive waste. The participants encourage international cooperation in these fields. Each State should take appropriate steps to ensure that adequate financial resources are available to support the safety of nuclear installations throughout their life, including during the decommissioning phase, and the safety of the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste.
e) Countries developing nuclear power programmes are responsible for the development of the necessary infrastructure. Some countries, including developing countries, may seek assistance and support from countries with existing infrastructures and capability.
f) International cooperation should be continually strengthened to carry forward research and development of advanced nuclear technologies.
So, far we saw both the positive side and negative side of the nuclear energy. Nuclear power contributes to global energy security while addressing climate change and avoiding air pollution. Nuclear power is a base load source of electricity that can make a major contribution to meeting energy needs in a sustainable manner in the 21st century.
Today the advancement of nuclear power in the world is crippled by governmental policy, regulation, and misconceptions.
In the long term, it is reasonable to expect that the energy needs of the world will be met from a number of different sources, only one of which will be nuclear fission.
However, to ensure the energy security of the Nation in the medium term and to allow time for the development of new energy technologies which can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world needs to initiate immediately a program to implement nuclear fission reactors on a large scale.
Greater public awareness on the merits of nuclear energy in world energy mix must be generated. While none can deny the risks involved in nuclear fission, the investments made in the safety processes and regulatory procedures to minimize these must be adequately brought out. The government must also encourage transparency in calculating the costs of nuclear electricity generation, which ample studies have proven is cost competitive in many scenarios.
The overall safety is much better than it was 10 years ago, but we still have vulnerabilities in safety, as well as in security. In the nuclear domain, the role of governments goes beyond setting national energy goals. Nuclear energy, if produced safely, offers promise. The requirement hence is to fast-track civilian nuclear expansion while maintaining the highest standards of nuclear safety and security. Today’s world has to carefully make the right choices to assure the future generations of a brighter and secure tomorrow.
Governments should work together with private stakeholders to enhance the effectiveness of regulatory regimes and to ensure that the nuclear industry keeps safety and environmental protection as its highest priority – because we should not protect the environment, we should create a world where the environment doesn’t need protection.
Chandrika L Kulkarni
Shri Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara College of Engineering and Technology
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