To this day, over 300 million people in India live without electricity. Early in the next decade, the country will surpass China in becoming the world’s most populous country; by 2050, almost one in five people on earth will be an Indian. It will be a Herculean challenge to provide energy for so many people for their homes, schools, and offices.
With growing concerns over the environment, the traditional fuel of industrialisation – fossil fuels – have become increasingly unpopular. Even if one doubts the evidence of climate change, the local pollution and health effects of coal and oil are undeniable. Nuclear power offers the most reliable avenue for abundant clean energy that is ready for immediate deployment.
Ideally, India would have approximately a thousand reactors by 2050. This is to accommodate its peak population with energy at balanced European levels of consumption. This nuclear fleet would represent some 65 per cent of India’s electricity demand from industry, transportation, and domestic necessities. However, it is unlikely that so many reactors can be built in so short a time. A more realistic yet still aggressive nuclear future would posit 400 new nuclear reactors by the middle of the 21st century and a pace of construction that would continue until the end of the century.
Does India really need so many reactors? Well, if you consider that 60 reactors in France support a population of about 80 million with some 70 per cent of their energy needs, a thousand – or even 400 – reactors for India seems very much on the mark.
Yet there are concerns about safety and cost. Nuclear power appears expensive mostly because of the exceedingly high standards of manufacturing adhered to in designing and building reactor components. Secondly, the bulk of the cost of a nuclear reactor is upfront, meaning that fluctuations in commodity prices will not affect the price of electricity. Third, the energy density of nuclear fuel, be it uranium, plutonium, or thorium, is so high that it would make only a small demand on India’s struggling transportation capacity. A fourth reason for the high cost of nuclear is that the average nuclear power plant lasts at least twice that of its thermal equivalent and thrice that of a solar farm; the latest designs are pushing those life expectancy ratios to three and five times respectively.
We must also remember that if India embarks on this bold nuclear project, it will be building only the latest technology that has matured over the past 50 years. Today’s designs are substantially safer than those from the 1960”s and 1970’s, when most of presently existing reactors were built.
Nuclear waste and the longevity of some of its radioactive components is also questioned. However, India has designed two different reactor technologies that can reuse nuclear waste and leave behind only a safe smidgen. These are the Fast Breeder Reactor operated by Bhavini and the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor designed by scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. India is also working on an indigenous Molten Salt Reactor design. These last two designs, powered by thorium, are so safe that scientists are confident that they can be deployed even in the middle of a bustling metropolis.
There is no good reason for holding back on nuclear energy, and the more the better. Critics of nuclear energy hold it to absurdly high standards of safety that no other industry – fossil fuels, automobiles, fast food – is subjected to, despite casualty figures that far surpass those of the nuclear industry. All this on the potentiality of an accident which has less likelihood of happening than you keeling over as you watch this video. But to paraphrase the phrase popularised by Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his inaugural address in March 1933, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
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