Nuclear Energy As A Gateway To An Economical And Environmentally Sustainable Future

by Satyajit Roy - May 11, 2022 09:30 AM +05:30 IST
Nuclear Energy As A Gateway To An Economical And Environmentally Sustainable FutureNuclear night (Photo by Nicolas HIPPERT on Unsplash)
  • The essay, published under the Swasti 22 initiative, provides an overview of the commencement as well as advancement of nuclear energy in India as well as globally.

“Nuclear power is our gateway to a prosperous future.” — Dr A P J Abdul Kalam

The book Voices from Chernobyl by Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich briefly describes the predicament of one Colonel Yaroshuk.

He is a Russian general and chemist-dosimetrist on his deathbed. Previously active, he has turned paraplegic. He has kidney stones that requires operation, but he doesn't have the financial means for the medical intervention.

The government is said to be acting like a “money lender,” and individuals like Colonel Yaroshuk have been abandoned. “They will name a street, a school, or a military unit” to commemorate him but only after he dies.

They exploited him like he were a robot, as he had to walk across an area and note the points of maximum radiation within a radius of radioactivity. He held a dosimeter in his hand.

He had had the real, front-row seat to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The disaster at Chernobyl was the outcome of over-ambition and negligence of leaders who aspired to exploit nuclear energy.

The world had been dealing with energy and power crises in the immediate past by then. With fossil fuels diminishing worldwide with time, nations were involved in regular discussions, holding conferences and building agendas, to reduce their dependence on conventional sources of energy and tread towards clean and renewable sources. Nuclear energy has always been seen as the cheapest, greenest, and safest source of energy.

Nuclear energy is the energy contained in an atom's nucleus or core. Atoms are the basic units that constitute all matter in the universe. Nuclear energy is produced by splitting the atom, a process known as nuclear fission.

Nuclear energy is a long-term source of green energy that will be necessary in the future to attain a low carbon footprint and meet the nation's long-term industrial needs. While scientists and academics are aware of the benefits, the general populace should be made aware of the wide range of peaceful and beneficial applications in power generation, medicine, industry, agriculture, space, water resources, and food preservation.

The widespread recognition of nuclear energy's societal benefits will have a compounding impact on its acceptability, catalysing a country's progress.

A nuclear reactor is used to produce electricity by controlled nuclear fission. Uranium is used as a fuel in nuclear reactors. The splitting of uranium atoms produces fission products, which induce more uranium atoms to disintegrate, resulting in a chain reaction.

The energy released as a result of this chain reaction is in the form of heat. This heat is utilised to preheat the cooling agent in nuclear reactors, leading to the production of steam. The turbines are then turned by the steam, which drives the engines or generators that generate power.

The first nuclear reactor to generate energy was built at Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho, the United States of America (US), in 1951.

In 1954, Obninsk, Russia, built the first nuclear power plant designed to supply electricity to a community.

Following its confrontation with China in the 1962 conflict, India began developing nuclear weapons, which was followed by China conducting nuclear tests in 1964 and through the years.

India undertook its very first nuclear tests, Pokhran-I, in 1974, during the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The test was labelled a “peaceful nuclear explosion.”

After over two decades of international powers putting pressure on India to relinquish its nuclear weapons programme, India conducted another test, Pokhran-II, on 11 May 1998 (24 years ago to this day), combining a fission bomb, a moderate device, and a thermonuclear device.

As a result of its successful implementation, India achieved the potential to include nuclear warheads into its rapidly evolving missile programme.

India issued a specific nuclear doctrine in 1999, committing to ‘No First Use’ (NFU) – that is, vowing to never carry out a nuclear first strike. This doctrine emphasised “minimum deterrence, no first use, and non-use against non-nuclear-weapon states.” As a result, the NFU pledge was accompanied by a plausible minimum deterrent.

India's nuclear power facilities, which were built largely during the years of sanctions, account for barely 3 per cent of the country's energy mix. The first two units at Kudankulam were built with Russian support after the landmark Indo-US nuclear pact in 2008.

The country's thorium reserves account for 25 per cent of the world's total. It may be used as a fuel to reduce the amount of uranium imported from other countries. When compared to natural uranium, thorium produces eight times the amount of energy per unit mass.

Thorium dioxide is far more stable than uranium dioxide, resulting in less waste. It also has increased thermal conductivity, therefore in case of explosion, heat energy will swiftly flow out and prevent a meltdown.

Despite these advantages over uranium, thorium has not been developed because it requires reprocessing that might pose certain practical hurdles.

India's nuclear programme aims to maximise the generation capacity of accessible uranium resources while also making use of the country's vast thorium deposits. Without implementing the closed fuel cycle strategy, the uranium resources available globally cannot support the expected increase in nuclear power.

India has a three-stage nuclear project layout to exploit its nearly unlimited thorium deposits in the long run. In the first step, a fleet of pressurised heavy water reactors would be built, which would use scarce uranium to generate plutonium.

In the second stage, many fast breeder reactors (FBRs) would be developed, which would use a combination of plutonium and reprocessed ‘spent uranium’ from the first stage to produce electricity and additional plutonium. The FBRs would have produced enough plutonium for use in the 'third stage' after three to four decades of operation.

Uranium-233 would be utilised in specially constructed reactors to generate electricity and convert more thorium into uranium-233 at this stage — you could keep adding thorium indefinitely. However, after so many years, India is still in the first stage.

While climate change is a serious issue, it is not the only environmental issue we face. Nuclear power carries its own environmental and public-health risks, making it an ineffective tool for combating climate change.

Because each fission event involving uranium or plutonium nuclei produces radioactive elements known as fission products, all nuclear reactors generate nuclear waste materials that remain radioactive for millions of years. Nuclear waste is an inevitable long-term environmental hazard despite years of scientific research.

The nuclear incidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl show that nuclear reactors are also potential sources of catastrophic failures. A single nuclear meltdown can pollute vast swaths of land, leaving them barren for generations. Approximately 650,000 acres remain inhabitable more than 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster.

The hazards of nuclear power are well known in local communities. Since the 1980s, every new, proposed nuclear plant location has been met with a groundswell of opposition. These movements have been successful in forcing the withdrawal of plans in the past.

However, in certain planned sites, such as Fatehabad (Haryana), the government has been successful in leveraging financial incentives to overcome resistance to nuclear construction.

Nuclear diplomacy among the nuclear-empowered nations has been a fulcrum for decades. With the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the like, powerful, developed nations have tried to prevent other nations from harnessing nuclear energy.

The Russia-Ukraine war, or sanctions imposed by the US, or the deterrence of Iran against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) vividly underlines the very significance of nuclear energy in the near future.

Nuclear energy has also been negatively used as warheads in the past and continues to be used as potential threats to undermine weak nations by powerful nations. India has always held a neutral position in diplomacy and carried out its nuclear tests well within the regulations of the treaties. Dr Homi Bhaba and Dr A P J Abdul Kalam have stood as stalwarts in India’s nuclear journey.

It is important for all the nations that they balance the clean and sustainable properties of nuclear energy on one side and disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as nuclear warheads, on the other.

Nations should carve out policies that ensure the safety and security of citizens and use nuclear energy as a gateway to an economical and environmentally sustainable future.

This article has been published as part of Swasti 22, the Swarajya Science and Technology Initiative 2022. Read other Swasti 22 submissions.

Also Read: ITER: The Bumpy Road To Building World’s Largest Fusion Reactor — And India’s Role In Mega Project

Satyajit Roy is a student at IIM Bangalore
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