By Aditya Sinha & Chirag Dudani
Respectively, additional private secretary (policy & research) and assistant consultant, EAC-PM
Western activism tends to push agenda that don’t find buyers in the home countries to the much less-developed Global South. This activism conveniently portrays something that is cutting edge, as a global pariah. Nuclear energy is a case in point. Our country has had a history of nuclear projects being stalled due to protests, which are often funded by the West. It is worth quoting from a 2012 interview in Science with then PM of India, Manmohan Singh. “The atomic energy program has got into difficulties because these NGOs (the ones in the developed world), mostly, I think, based in the US, don’t appreciate the need for our country to increase energy. The local NGO-led protests have stalled the commissioning of two 1000 MW nuclear reactors”.
One major concern raised by opponents of nuclear energy is the potential safety risks involved in running a nuclear power plant and handling radioactive waste. However, the data tells a completely different story. According to an analysis by Our World in Data (bit.ly/3IaXEep), the death rate per unit of electricity production for nuclear is a mere 0.03. These numbers are much higher for brown coal (32.72), coal (24.62), and oil (18.43). This analysis uses deaths from accidents and air pollution to calculate the death rate per terawatt-hour of electricity. Although it is true that fossil fuel-based electricity generation often leads to higher death rates, people tend to overestimate the dangers of nuclear power. But why is it so?
Those who know behavioural economics or psychology will attribute it to the “availability heuristic.” Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were the first ones to study the availability heuristic, which is a mental shortcut wherein people make judgments on the basis of the immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind. Humans tend to overestimate the frequency of an event because it is more readily available in one’s memory. While many of us do not know about the accidents in the thermal power plants, everyone knows about Fukushima nuclear disaster and Chernobyl. This has distorted perceptions of risk or probability.
This is despite the fact that the Japanese government reported that only one person died directly as a result of the Fukushima nuclear accident, and that more deaths were caused by the evacuation process. The Chernobyl accident resulted in 31 direct deaths, but estimates of the total number of premature deaths from cancer linked to the accident range from a maximum of 4,000 according to the World Health Organization to a maximum of 62 according to another UN agency.
In the past, nuclear accidents typically involved older, outdated reactors that are no longer in operation. Modern, third-generation reactors are designed with improved safety features and are less prone to meltdowns. Despite the risks associated with nuclear energy, research (bit.ly/2TIGMP7) has demonstrated that transitioning from fossil fuels to nuclear power has prevented approximately 2 million deaths from air pollution since 1971. If nuclear energy is more widely adopted as a means of decarbonising the global economy, it has the potential to prevent tens of millions of deaths in the future.
That is not the only reason India should invest more in nuclear energy. The renewable energy sector is yet to solve round-the-clock baseload power generation, which is critical for grid stability. Even though solar has seen significant per-unit cost efficiency in the recent past, battery technology is still far from making it a predominant source of power. In an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment with price spillovers to hydrocarbon imports, the transition to green energy has payoffs beyond climate change. This is even more true for India with its high current account deficits. Nuclear power is indispensable to this transition, being the only scalable powwr source with 24×7 baseload power generation.
There are currently 22 nuclear reactors in India. The government envisions nuclear energy as a key part of its electricity generation strategy and aims to increase the share of nuclear energy in the country’s electricity mix to about 10% by 2031. However, India has not been able to truly leverage the landmark nuclear deal, which made India the only non-NPT signee with nuclear weapons allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The 48-nation NSG waiver to India opened the doors for procuring civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. Despite the substantive increase in access to technology and fuel, the share of nuclear energy in the overall energy pie has stagnated at around 3% since 2008, when the deal was signed. The nuclear power sector has the slowest rate of growth in capacity addition amongst fuels, notwithstanding ambitious targets laid at the time.
The recent major breakthrough in nuclear fusion technology announced by US department of energy has sparked new optimism in the sector. The Indian government, on its part, has approved the construction of ten more pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs). These new PHWRs, which will have a capacity of 700 MW each, will be set up in a fleet mode, which means they will be constructed and operated as a single unit to increase efficiency and reduce costs. The future of nuclear energy in India looks bright as long as Indians are able to resist the temptation of becoming the consumers of activism of the global north.