Why India is pushing ahead with nuclear power plans

Government seeks to triple its nuclear power generation capacity to address growing energy needs and cleaner sources

The Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) Tarapur 3 and 4 at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station in the Thane district of Maharashtra state. India is adding more nuclear power generation capacity to move towards cleaner forms of energy. AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

India is pushing ahead with plans to boost the country's nuclear power capacity to meet its growing energy needs and reduce its carbon footprint. This is despite hurdles such as the cost and public opposition owing to safety concerns.

The Indian government plans to triple its nuclear power generation capacity in the next decade. Just this month, state-run NTPC India's largest power producer – which primarily relies on coal – announced its foray into nuclear energy.

“Now buoyed by the need to meet India’s net-zero energy targets with other clean-energy sources, India is aspiring to increase the nuclear power capacity,” says Shailendra Singh Rao, managing director and founder of Creduce, a carbon credits trading and net-zero advisory company based in Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat.

India is heavily dependent on coal, which is highly polluting, for most of its electricity generation, leading to the country having some of the world’s most polluted cities.

The government is striving to move towards cleaner forms of energy to address the problem, and nuclear is an option, given that it is a zero-emission source of energy.

At the Cop 26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, Prime minister Narendra Modi pledged that the country would achieve net-zero emissions by 2070.

However, devastating floods have hit India this monsoon season, with scientists saying that climate change is playing a role in the world's increasingly extreme weather. This highlights the importance of reducing emissions and the need to look to alternative clean forms of energy.

“Nuclear fuels would be very critical for India to make the transition as well as achieve its sustainable development goals,” Mr Rao says. “Considering the current fuel situation, it would be imperative for the government to drive the nuclear investment for electricity.”

India's power needs are set to grow over the coming years as the population and economy expands. This means that the country also needs to ensure its energy security.

So far, India has seven nuclear power plants, which produce a a combined 6.78 gigawatts of atomic energy. The government has said that it plans to triple its nuclear power capacity to 22.48 gigawatts by 2031 to make up 5 per cent of the country's power production, from just over 3 per cent now.

As the country targets expansion in the sector, NTPC said that it plans to expand into nuclear energy for the first time.

“Discussions are under way for adding nuclear capacity," Gurdeep Singh, chairman and managing director of the NTPC, said during an investor and analyst meeting on August 1.

“Any government company can enter into the nuclear space,” he added. “We are committed towards providing reliable and affordable power for all striving for the clean energy leadership in India.”

NTPC and Nuclear Power Corporation of India, India's nuclear developer, are in talks with the government to build two 700-megawatt reactors in Madhya Pradesh in Central India, Bloomberg reported last week, citing people familiar with the matter.

Nuclear physicist and former Atomic Energy Commission chief Anil Kakodkar has said that India cannot meet its net-zero targets without nuclear power.

As the country's appetite for energy rises, developing alternatives to fossil-fuel power is becoming more urgent. The country is set to overtake the EU as the third-biggest consumer of all forms of energy globally by 2030, the International Energy Agency said.

The surge in global commodity prices is also another warning sign that India needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, given the cost of imports of coal and crude oil, which is weighing on the country's current account deficit.

Nuclear power “has huge potential and can provide long-term energy security to the country in a sustainable manner”, Jitendra Singh, Minister of State for Earth Sciences and Atomic Energy, told parliament in March.

“[A] nuclear capacity expansion programme is one of the means to achieve [the] country’s transition in meeting the goal of a net-zero economy,” he added.

[A] nuclear capacity expansion programme is one of the means to achieve [the] country’s transition in meeting the goal of a net-zero economy
Jitendra Singh, Minister of State for Earth Sciences and Atomic Energy

This comes alongside India's push to boost renewable sources of energy, including solar and wind, as it tries to lower its reliance on fossil fuels.

Nuclear could be “a viable replacement for coal”, says Amit Bhandari, senior fellow for energy, investment and connectivity at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank.

However, he warns that cost will be main obstacle for India’s nuclear power ambitions.

“The disadvantages are largely from the cost and the lead time,” Mr Bhandari says.

“Typically, large projects tend to run into delays. So very few of these actually have been done on time and cost. So, apart from the high upfront cost, you have to add the cost of project delays.”

Along with operational costs, this makes power produced by nuclear power plants expensive compared with other forms of energy.

As a result, nuclear was likely to lag behind coal, hydro and renewables as a source of power for India, Mr Bhandari says.

“I think coal will continue to play a large role in the Indian power sector for a long time.”

But one of the main advantages of atomic energy over renewable sources, he points out, is that it is available round the clock, while renewables are intermittent.

To reduce the expense of nuclear power plants and make them more financially viable, India will need to scale up its use of indigenous designs for reactors, Mr Bhandari says.

Another challenge for nuclear power expansion in India was public opposition over safety concerns. People have become much more wary of the risks of nuclear power plants following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, experts say.

Nuclear power plants “are multibillion-dollar investments in infrastructure; permissions, regulations approvals all not only takes years but also involves a lot of public interest”, Mr Rao says.

People living near nuclear Kudankulam nuclear power plant site in south India protesting in New Delhi.

“Nuclear power stations are considered to be dangerous and unstable and prone to attack. This general perception is based on past events and fear-mongering through media and entertainment. Danger lurks right from transportation to storage to disposal mechanisms.”

Protests have been staged for years against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in south India, which is a project using Russian technology, and one that is being expanded.

Another hurdle stems from the fact that under India's nuclear liability law, equipment suppliers are liable for accidents.

Following an agreement with the US in 2008, India was permitted to access to foreign technology and raw materials for its civil nuclear programme for the first time in 30 years.

However, the safety concerns and cost issues are the biggest hurdles for the sector, says Barnik Maitra, managing partner at Arthur D. Little India, an international management consulting firm.

“Nuclear power expansion in India is hindered by many obstacles,” he says.

Overcoming these challenges will be critical as India strives to reduce its dependency on coal and achieve its net-zero targets, with nuclear likely to be an important part of the solution to these problems, Mr Maitra adds.

Updated: August 29, 2022, 4:30 AM