New Delhi: Nuclear energy might be capital intensive, but the cost to the consumer is much lower than that of other renewable resources, like solar and wind, said Anil Kakodkar, nuclear scientist and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, Thursday.
Kakodkar was in conversation with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta and Senior Associate Editor Manasi Phadke during a virtual session of ‘Off The Cuff’.
The nuclear scientist touched on the various aspects of nuclear science, the inhibitions around the technology and why India needs to expand its renewable power production.
Talking about how India’s use of thorium can reduce the generation of radioactive waste, Kakodkar said: “Thorium can essentially limit the amount of spent fuel coming out of uranium reactors”.
He pointed out that although India’s nuclear resource endowment — that is, its uranium resources — are modest, the country has vast resources of thorium.
“Our objective is ultimately to be able to extract energy out of thorium on a very large scale,” he added.
However, a nuclear reaction required for energy generation can not begin with thorium. Uranium is required to set forth a chain of reactions required for energy generation.
Thus India’s nuclear plant would be divided in three stages — uranium reactor, fast breeder reactor, and thorium reactors.
Most importantly, the three stage process ensures that the nuclear waste generated is just about two to five per cent of the waste generated by a country that only uses uranium reactors, Kakodkar explained.
On India’s nuclear energy plan
Around 10 to 11 per cent of the world’s electricity is supplied by nuclear energy now, although there was a time when this was as high as around 17 per cent, Kakodkar said.
“With the emphasis and awareness about the global warming, and the need to resort to energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide, nuclear will become even more important,” he added.
This is because it is the only large-scale dispatchable power or baseload power which has the potential to grow, Kakodkar explained. Hydro power is also of that kind, he added, but it has almost reached saturation — at least in India.
Baseload power refers to the minimum amount of electric power needed to be supplied to the electrical grid at any given time. Maintaining baseload power is very important to manage large grids.
Unless baseload power is managed, the grid starts entailing higher and higher capital investments, either in the form of additional capacity or storage, said Kakodkar.
The scientist added: “These investments are very large. Studies have shown that variable renewable energy costs (such as wind and solar) are very low at the generation end, from the consumer end it can become three to four times higher.”
Although nuclear projects are capital intensive, the per capita delivery cost is comparable to solar energy, he said.
Kakodkar also said that energy is one of the very important inputs to support development.
Energy makes a significant difference in human development index, life expectancy at birth and a variety of other development parameters, he said.
“Initially, there is a sharp contribution as the energy input increases, this development parameter sharply goes up. And then the point comes when it saturates,” he added.
“Most of the advanced countries in the world which have high human development index enjoy per capita energy consumption at a level higher than some threshold. India’s energy consumption in per capita terms is much lower than this. So increase in energy utilisation is very important for India, to improve its quality of life, people’s quality, and it’s not necessarily so in advanced countries,” he said.
Other benefits of atomic or nuclear science
According to Kakodkar, one of the key benefits of nuclear science is its applications in the health sector.
“One of the challenges in the health area relates to cancer. And radiation is an important treatment modality for treating cancer,” he said.
There are also applications of nuclear science in agriculture and waste management.
In the past, Kakodkar noted, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) had successfully carried out experiments involving irradiating seeds with nuclear radiation, to create new mutant varieties, with desirable plant traits.
“The varieties developed through nuclear mutation are contributing significantly to India’s pulses story, as well as oil seeds.” he said.
On genetically modified crops
Talking about the fear around genetically modified (GM) crops, Kakodkar said missing out on the development would cost India dearly.
He noted that any scientific development is brought about with a lot of care.
“There are modalities for developing GM crops. You carry out confined trials in fields, making sure that nothing can go outside. Once these modalities are done, then we should not fear,” he added.
However, “ideological fixes” in people’s minds is a societal problem that needs to be addressed, said the nuclear physicist.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that we are in that trap,” he said. Now even for conducting genetic modification research there’s a lot of a lot of insecurity, he added.
Fear of nuclear accidents and leaks
Kakodkar said that the public’s first exposure to nuclear energy came about by the Hiroshima incident, referring to the bombing of the Japanese town by the US during the second World War.
“However, if you asked me today, the nuclear technology is a vast improvement over the technology which went in Chernobyl or Fukushima reactors,” he added.
Although nobody can say no accident will take place, Kakodkar said that, if there is an accident, reactors are now designed to prevent the radiation from leaking, so that human exposure is limited.
“But I think it will take time for that field to vanish from the minds of people,” he added.