A nuclear spring | The Financial Express

A nuclear spring

As COP27 looks at translating promises into action, nuclear power must also be considered to supplement wind and solar energy

A nuclear spring
We owe a debt of gratitude to our atomic scientists and engineers for their hard and innovative work in the face of persistent technology denial regimes.

By S Ramadorai & Raman Srinivasan,

COP26 concluded a year ago in Glasgow, Scotland. COP27, or the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, is now attracting our attention. Over 90 heads of states and representatives from 190 nations are attending this event. In the meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has altered long-held assumptions. German factories are shutting down due to unbearable energy costs. The winter has been mild in Europe, so far.

The focus at COP27 has rightly shifted from promises to action, from pledges to implementation. Discussions are focussed on how to replicate success stories and how to scale success in a quick, time-bound manner. There is a renewed emphasis on partnership and collaboration, resulting in action. While there has been great progress in wind and solar as renewable energy sources, there is also a realisation that such sources alone are not entirely adequate. A new global consensus is emerging that nuclear energy is an indispensable component in assembling a climate change solution. The operating lifespans of old nuclear power plants are being extended. New nuclear power plants are being built, for example, in Finland, led by their Green party. Private investments are pouring into 80+ advanced nuclear startups across the world. Scientists and entrepreneurs are working on novel approaches that lead to the creation of affordable and safe nuclear power. One German scientist-entrepreneur, Dr. Bjorn Peters of Dual Fluid, poetically described his nuclear power reactor as “a bottle with no moving parts but a complex inner life.” A variety of new approaches, new technologies, and new ecosystems define this second coming of nuclear power. Some startups are focused on making nuclear fuels and reactors investible. Others are focussed on developing technologies that make nuclear power plants insurable. However, the commercial deployment of these advanced nuclear power generators is at least five, if not 10 or 20 years away. There is a great sense of urgency at COP27. How can India help?

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The pioneer of nuclear energy in India, Homi Bhabha, famously declared “No energy is as dangerous as no energy” and laid the foundations of India’s nuclear programme, almost 70 years ago. He recognised that India had very limited uranium reserves but an abundance of thorium-rich sands. Therefore, he formulated an audacious three-stage program to achieve energy independence. The first stage has resulted in the building of several world-class Pressurised Heavy Water reactors across India. We owe a debt of gratitude to our atomic scientists and engineers for their hard and innovative work in the face of persistent technology denial regimes.

Recently, the government of India, in a commendable decision, announced the construction of ten nuclear power plants in fleet mode. This is a significant step forward not only towards the industrialisation of the nuclear power sector but also a necessary step to meet our declared goal of “Net Zero” by 2070. Our nuclear engineers and scientists have achieved a certain amount of perfection in the design of power plants, and building them in fleet mode is now eminently feasible. The private sector of the nuclear power industry is now being encouraged to partner with our Nuclear Power Corporation in the buildout of nuclear energy.

By design, our Pressurised Heavy Water reactors are modular in nature. On account of sustained research and engineering efforts, Indian PHWRs have established an enviable safety and performance record. Furthermore, our nuclear power plants have also demonstrated global cost-leadership. Reflecting our belief in the Vedic adage sarve janah sukhino bhavantu (May all in the world be happy) and with a certain generosity of spirit, we must consider sharing Indian nuclear energy technology with the larger world as our contribution to mitigating climate change.

Surprisingly enough, this could well be an effort that would attract considerable global goodwill, partnership, and investment. In the first instance, this may indeed appear to be a dramatic shift from what we might have expected. India is recognised as a credible and responsible nuclear power in the larger world today and is also increasingly recognised as a technology and solution provider to vexing global problems. The two primary impediments to the spread of nuclear energy have been the problems posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the disposal of nuclear waste. Multiple nuclear startups with innumerable technological innovations appear to be on the verge of addressing these twin obstacles.

Once these two problems are addressed in a satisfactory way, India could play a prominent and profitable role in addressing climate change by sharing our deep expertise in nuclear power generation. One of our leading nuclear experts, Anil Kakodkar, has suggested that mixing thorium with low-enriched uranium could be an effective way of addressing both proliferation and waste disposal concerns. Convergently, the US department of energy has also been advocating a shift to high assay low-enriched uranium as the fuel of choice for all next-gen nuclear reactors.

However, despite all the investments, building out of next-gen reactors will continue to remain a challenge. As Bjorn Peters writes, “Unfortunately, the US and France have forgotten how to build large nuclear reactors efficiently, and Germany has forgotten to do so completely.” We, in India, on the other hand, now have an unbroken history of building sophisticated, cost-effective, and safe nuclear power plants. We have a youthful and energetic population keen to be skilled. Our youth have proven their ability to work in all corners of the world, creating value wherever they live and work.The time may be right for India to partner and collaborate with major nuclear powers to address the apparently intractable problem of climate change. India can do so by powering the world with clean and safe nuclear energy. We can utilise Make in India for the nuclear power sector and share it with the world. Undoubtedly, this will lead to growth in multiple sectors of the Indian economy as well. We must welcome this nuclear spring.

The author is Respectively, former vice-chairman, TCS, and doctoral graduate from University of Pennsylvania

Co-authored with CR Chandrasekar, managing director, Sustein Ltd

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First published on: 12-11-2022 at 04:30 IST