The Union government’s approval last month for the construction of 10 nuclear power units with a cumulative capacity of 7,000 MW has reaffirmed India’s commitment to helping meet its energy needs through this environmentally safe resource. Significantly, the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) would be made indigenously. The decision is likely to result in manufacturing orders of close to Rs 70,000 crore for the domestic industry, and generate more than 33,400 jobs. These nuclear plants are unlikely to suffer the fate of the numerous coal-based plants which are operating at low utilisation levels due to excess generation capacity.
According to Kameswara Rao, partner at PwC, the proposed 7,000-MW capacity addition would get absorbed easily. “Nuclear power projects entail long development and a construction time-frame of 7 to 15 years. Even at a modest growth of 4% in peak demand, India will need over 70 GW of new capacity over this period,” he says. Additionally, the new plants would help reshape the country’s base-load energy mix to meet the Paris commitments. “As renewable energy is intermittent and limited by resource availability, we need nuclear and large hydro projects to reduce the carbon intensity in our base-load power generation,” Rao adds. At a plant load factor (PLF) of 80%, the additional 7,000 MW would generate about 50,000 million units, which is 4% of our current power generation. The country’s present nuclear PLF stands at 67% on account of restrictions on the fuel cycle imposed by global cartels.
Welcoming the decision, Dr M R Srinivasan, Dr Anil Kakodkar, Dr Srikumar Banerjee and Dr R K Sinha — all former chairmen of AEC— and Dr S K jain, former NPCIL chairman, in a joint press conference, said it had enthused Indian equipment manufacturers, and would help bring India to the forefront of the global nuclear manufacturing and supply chain. At present, India’s 22 operational plants have the capacity to generate 6,780 MW of nuclear power. Through projects that are underway, another 6,700 MWs of nuclear power is expected to come on-stream by FY22 – taking the country’s installed nuclear capacity to 13,480 MW. The approval for another 7,000 MW capacity means this figure would cross 20,000 MW once the newest units are commissioned.
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According to government data, four reactors with a total capacity of 2,800 MW are under construction and another four with a capacity of 3,400 MW have been accorded sanction by the government. Additionally, the Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI) is indigenously building a 500-MW capacity Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam.
With 37.7 billion units (BU), the share of nuclear energy in the country’s energy basket stood at about 3% in FY17. To put it into perspective, this is nearly thrice the amount of electricity produced from solar power in FY17 though the installed capacity of solar plants (12,289 MW) was 81% higher than nuclear plants. That may explain why J Robert Oppenheimer once referred to nuclear energy as being ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ —in a reference to the Bhagavad Gita.