For Atmanirbhar India expansion of nuclear power generation is essential – I
by Ramtanu Maitra on 19 Oct 2023 0 Comment

While COVID-19 was ravaging a locked-down India, on May 12, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an economic package that he said would be around 10 per cent of India’s more than US $3 trillion GDP. Addressing the nation, he said: “I announce a special economic package today. This will play an important role in the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ [Campaign to build a self-reliant India: ed]. ... India’s self-reliance will be based on five pillars - economy, infrastructure, technology-driven systems, vibrant demography, and demand. When India speaks of self-reliance, it does not advocate for a self-centred system. In India’s self-reliance, there is a concern for the whole world’s happiness, cooperation, and peace.”


It is a dynamic vision. But it cannot be attained overnight and will require the virtual overhauling of certain sectors to succeed. One such sector is the power sector, the anchor of every economy. Only a large infusion of a steady supply of power will enable people from every part and section of the country to hone their skills and contribute to this visionary campaign. A steady power source is not only an essential ingredient for enhancing the productivity of heavy, medium, and small industries, but it is also a vital source for converting saline and brackish water into potable water, a critical component of the infrastructure needed to meet people’s requirements.


Urging the people to build “Atmanirbhar Bharat,” Prime Minister Modi has thrown a challenge to Indian entrepreneurs and to the leaders of all administrative sectors. I urge the authorities to focus on how to expeditiously utilize India’s slow but now-established nuclear power generation program to meet this challenge, and I explain why in this article.


Rapid growth of nuclear power - not the other renewables - is the key to building a self-reliant India for several reasons. First, it could be a wholly indigenous undertaking because India has developed its own nuclear power generation capacity painstakingly over the last 60 years.


Second, nuclear power is the most efficient energy source. Unlike solar and wind energy, which need the sun to be shining or the wind to be blowing, nuclear power can be generated at any time throughout the day, every day; nuclear has the highest capacity factor of all the energy sources in use. Moreover, decades’ worth of accumulated knowledge has enabled nuclear power plants to improve their productivity and safety significantly. Today, nuclear power plants can stay functioning and run at full capacity much longer between refuelling and maintenance.


Third, nuclear power is the best way to meet India’s commitment to reduce, if not eliminate, carbon emissions. That commitment centres around developing the country’s renewable sources, which include nuclear energy. Renewable sources such as wind or solar are intermittent, and they require uneven geographical distribution. Because they are intermittent, these plants need a backup power source such as large-scale storage (not currently available at grid-scale) - or they can be paired with a reliable baseload power like nuclear energy. Only with the rapid development of nuclear power can India reduce emissions and grow its economy at the same time.


Covid-19, the Global Supply Chain, and China


Prime Minister Modi’s announcement occurred at an opportune moment in India’s modern history. The outbreak of COVID-19 worldwide made many countries take a fresh look at the global supply chain. Over the decades, foreign investors moved into fast-growing China to set up their shops. China became an enviable centre of manufacturing. In the process, the key to the global supply chain was handed over to China. That situation came under massive strain in 2020 when the pandemic broke out, first in China and then worldwide. Continuance of COVID-19 in China, and repeated lockdowns in that country, exposed other countries to the vulnerabilities of that supply chain.


It directly affected countries, the business leaders’ policies of investing abroad came under scrutiny, and their citizens began to question the rationale of becoming wholly dependent on one supplier country. Shipping restrictions delayed essential pharmaceuticals and critical medical supplies, exposing the importing nations’ policies in full measure. A lean manufacturing strategy depending solely on timely delivery through the global supply chain included minimizing the amount of inventory - another shortcoming that was exposed during the pandemic.


While the Western nations, who are major consumers of goods, have been very vocal in reacting to the downside of making China the hub of the global supply chain, India is far from being immune to the problem. India’s dependence on China-supplied goods has shown no sign of diminishing and has, in fact, continued to rise.


India depends on China for the supply of a wide range of products, from the simplest to sophisticated electronic products and pharmaceutical intermediates. India’s reliance on Chinese imports in three product groups, namely, telecom and electronics products, pharmaceutical intermediates (active pharmaceutical ingredients, or APIs), and solar panels used for power generation are of particular concern. Almost 90 percent of solar panels used in India are made in China, whose officials have expressed increasing hostility toward India over the disputed border issue in recent years.


This puts a question mark on the viability of India’s stated plan of making solar power a major power generation source. Large-scale import of solar panels and wind turbines from China, a hostile nation, is a risk that needs to be avoided. Dependence on imported power - the basic input for manufacturing in all key sectors such as industrial, engineering, transportation, and defence-related products - is a very questionable policy.


For its security alone, India needs to build a self-reliant defence sector that makes its weapons to match its requirements, instead of importing them. That requires broadening India’s heavy engineering capability to manufacture its own warships, aircraft carriers, submarines, and other naval vessels needed to match the security challenges on the ground and at sea posed by China in the neighbourhood. Beyond those defence requirements, India needs to build its own commercial aircraft, large maritime vessels for coastal transportation, and so on.


Power and Economy: The relationship


The key to the manufacturing sector’s success anywhere in the world can be found in the country’s demography - the size, density, and other characteristics of its population. India has a genuine advantage in that area. By 2030, India is projected to have the world’s most abundant labour force. Its total working-age population of almost 1.03 billion will overtake China’s 987 million and far exceed the United States’ 218 million. It is also likely to have the fastest-growing working-age population for the next 30 years (Shifting Global Value Chains: The India Opportunity: World Economic Forum: White Paper, June 2021).


Despite possessing this advantage, India’s manufacturing sector has not done well in recent years. There are many reasons for the lackadaisical performance. One reason is the lack of skill development. It is necessary now to focus on developing 21st century skills among new recruits and the existing workforce. Policy and its implementation through cooperation between the Centre and States could address this issue effectively. According to the World Economic Forum report, India can play a significant role in reshaping supply chains and could contribute more than US $500 billion in annual economic impact to the global economy by 2030. It is heartening to note that Indian authorities have included this factor in the Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign.


A study by the Centre for Economic Data and Analyses at Ashoka University in Sonipat pointed out recently that employment in the manufacturing, real estate & construction, and mining sectors has gone down recently. Together these sectors accounted for 30 per cent of all employment in 2016-2017, and that dropped to 21 per cent in 2020-2021. Manufacturing accounts for nearly 17 per cent of India’s GDP, but the sector has seen employment decline sharply in the last five years. From 51 million Indians in 2016-2017, employment in the sector declined by 46 per cent to 27.3 million in 2020-2021. This indicates the severity of the employment crisis in India that predated the pandemic (CEDA-CMIE Bulletin: Manufacturing employment halves in 5 years: Bulletin No.4 2021: Ankur Bhardwaj).


Atmanirbhar Bharat cannot be attained unless India replaces its coal-fired power generation with a stable power generation system emitting reduced greenhouse gases. That requires focusing on a rapid increase in the production of nuclear power reactors - at least 10 a year - and setting them up in record time. That, in turn, calls for a push to step up the heavy engineering sector to enable faster production of the reactors. At the same time, India should import nuclear power plants, but those few plants would only supplement the power generated by domestic plants.


There are two key reasons why India has been left with virtually no other option. First is India’s commitment to the rest of the world to reduce carbon emissions rapidly. Currently, India’s power generation depends heavily on burning coal (a large chunk of daily coal supply is locally mined, and the rest is imported). In 2022, the installed capacity of 173 coal-fired plants was 238 Gigawatts (GW), which was more than 50 per cent of the total installed power generation capacity; but its share in electricity production was higher than 70 per cent. In addition, 32 GW of coal plants are currently under construction, and another 28 GW are in the early stages (permitted, pre-permit or announced).


India is the third-largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, and it is acknowledged that India’s power consumption will rise steadily in the coming years. India has been under pressure from the rest of the world to take measures to reduce GHG. New Delhi has responded positively and made a pledge to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45 per cent by 2030 (the pledge is known as a nationally determined contribution or NDC).


Emission intensity is a measure of the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of economic activity, and India now has a more ambitious target than the 33-35 per cent cut set before COP26. India has also set a target date to reach zero emissions by 2070. Net zero is when a country is not adding to the overall amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At the last COP meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that a target of 500 GW, at least, of India’s energy capacity will come from non-fossil sources (hydro, solar, wind, nuclear in particular) by 2030.


The second reason is the unreliability and low power density of wind and solar, which make them unsuitable as a replacement for a steady power supply such as coal-based power plants. To ensure a dependable supply of electrical power based on wind and solar, supplementary reliable electricity sources are inescapable to step in whenever output drops. Today this is done mainly with the help of auxiliary gas turbines, diesel generators, or - when nuclear plants are available - by “load-following” that constantly adjusts nuclear plant output. But load-following can work only if the ratio of nuclear to wind-plus-solar is large enough and not the other way around.


As for the density issue, aside from hurricanes and tornadoes, wind is a diffuse form of energy that requires large areas to “harvest” it. The same applies to sunlight on the surface of the Earth. For a populated nation such as India, unlimited, even significant, growth of these power sources is not viable. Even if you grab large chunks of agricultural land from the farmers, as the authorities must do in India, problems do not end. Once power is generated, it needs to be distributed to domestic, commercial, industrial, military, and other consumers.


As I see it, India is left with no other long-term option but to ramp up its nuclear power generation to become self-reliant and reduce its GHG emissions significantly in the long run by replacing the ageing coal-fired plants. It seems like asking a lot, but by keeping a focus on the fact that nuclear power must be the anchor of India’s power generation, this can be achieved. That is because 60 years of experience with nuclear power has developed confidence and a pool of highly skilled scientists, engineers and workers. And India’s large, dynamic, young workforce is there to be trained for the future.


(To be concluded…)

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