Towards an Energy Policy

Note:  This article  may have initiated the public debate on the economics of the Indo-US nuclear deal.  It was published as a Special Article on the Editorial Page of The Sunday Statesman of April 2 2006 but it failed to be uploaded at the website http://www.thestatesman.net because there had been a fire on March 31 2006.  The politicians who led the  parliamentary debate  in 2006 subsequently made reference to it.

 

 

See also  republished elsewhere here e.g. “India’s Energy Interests”, “India and Energy Security”, “Need for Clarity”/”From Confusion to Clarity”, “Against Quackery”, “Jimmy Carter and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal””, NuksaanFaida Analysis”.

 

 

“Towards an Energy Policy”

 

by Subroto Roy

 

First published in

The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article 2 April 2006

 

When was the last time we heard a thorough, well informed debate in Parliament about India’s long-term energy needs and policy-alternatives? The answer is never. Just as Pakistan tends to be run by Islamabad’s generals, we tend to be run by New Delhi’s bureaucrats; both are a legacy of the Raj which was run by small numbers of pompous civil servants and soldiers. Bureaucrats keep as much decision-making information as they can to themselves, give it to Parliament only under duress and then too in garbled opaque form, and share it voluntarily with the public never at all. A bureaucrat of conscience who shares vital information transparently becomes a “whistleblower”, and may risk his/her life and career because assorted mafias invariably surround all government contracting, and, like vampire bats, cannot stand the light of day shed upon them.

 

The problem with the Manmohan/Montek deal-making with the USA on behalf of India’s people has less to do with rational assessments not having been made of the relative costs and benefits of e.g. nuclear/fossil fuel/renewable energy, as it has to do with the fact it reflects the same lack of transparency (and is accompanied by the same politically correct propaganda) as has existed in other policy-making – like the $12 billion worth of commercial aircraft from Boeing and Airbus bought for our bankrupt nationalized airlines, or spending untold billions of borrowed dollars on new weapons from France, Russia, Britain or whomever to fight unknown enemies in unimagined wars, or throwing newly printed paper-money at every government project that any fool or knave cares to mention.

 

To be fair, the UPA/Communist dispensation of the public’s largesse is no worse than that of the NDA/RSS. Both are part of New Delhi’s own “Inside-the-Beltway” syndrome, and turn up at the same celebrity wedding-receptions and iftehar parties. Neither minds too much when the other is in power so long as they can keep their government accommodation. Our fundamental political problem may be the absence of any serious party of Left or of Right which is secular, scientific, liberal, nationalist, clean, law-abiding, and fiscally prudent.

 

Since no national debate on energy-policy has been offered by New Delhi, ordinary citizens will have to create such a debate for themselves. What follows constitutes a few of the barest facts needed to start such an analysis of India’s alternative energy scenarios and their respective costs.

 

Hydroelectric power does not involve burning any fuels. Instead, the gravitational force of the movement of water from the mountains to the oceans is harnessed to generate electricity. But hydroelectric projects (like the Narmada Dam) can displace people, who must be then compensated and resettled. Burning of organic “fossil fuels” like coal, gas and oil, causes atmospheric oxygen to turn into carbon dioxide, which may affect climate in unknown ways. In 2004, the International Energy Agency’s estimated the new energy capacity worldwide required by rising economic growth in the year 2020 will derive 1400 GW from burning coal (half of it in China and India), 470 GW from burning oil, 430GW from hydro, and 400 GW from renewable sources (like solar or wind power). On the Agency’s assumptions, gas prices will remain low, making construction of new nuclear plants for electricity uneconomical. By 2030, new energy expected to be required worldwide is 4700GW, of which only 150GW is expected from new nuclear plants — which will be replacing existing nuclear plants due to be retired. (Such is the scenario before any new nuclear plants were going to be exported by e.g. USA to India).

 

Now the fission of an atom of uranium produces perhaps 10 million times the energy produced by combustion of an atom of carbon from coal. Gas and fossil fuels may be cheap and in plentiful supply worldwide for generations to come but the potential for cheap energy from nuclear sources seems practically infinite. Nuclear power can arise from fission of radioactive uranium, plutonium or thorium. India has perhaps 8 million tonnes of monazite deposits along the seacoast of which half may be mined, to yield 225,000 tonnes of thorium metal; we have one innovatively designed thorium reactor under construction. But almost all nuclear energy worldwide today arises from uranium, and there are practically unlimited reserves of that. There is so much uranium in sea water that mankind’s total electricity needs can be satisfied for 7 million years. There is more energy in the uranium impurity present in coal than can arise from actually burning the coal. There is plenty of uranium in granite. None of these sources will become profitable for centuries because there is so much cheap uranium possible to be extracted from conventional ores. In 2001, uranium cost about US$20 per kg or so, translating to US$0.0004 per kwh of electricity. The known reserves of uranium that can be profitably sold at $120 per kg are enough for at least a hundred years. Design improvements in reactors will also improve productivity; e.g. “fast breeder” reactors “breed” more fissile material than they use, and may get 100 times as much energy from a kilogram of uranium as existing reactors do. India has about 95,000 tonnes of uranium metal which may be mined to yield about 61,000 tonnes net for power generation.

Natural uranium is 99.3 percent of the U-238 isotope and 0.7 percent of the radioactive U-235 isotope. Nuclear power requires “enriched uranium” or “yellow cake” in which U-235 has been increased from 0.7 percent to 4 to 5 percent, and that “separation” process is expensive. (Nuclear bombs require highly enriched uranium with more than 90% of U-235). Yellow cake is broken into small pieces, put in metal rods placed in bundles, which are then bombarded by neutrons causing fission. In nuclear bombs, the fission occurs in a small space, and the blast that results kills all life for miles around it by sucking up all the atmospheric oxygen, besides causing firestorms, shock waves and radioactivity. In a civilian reactor, the energy released turns water into steam, which moves turbines powering the generation of electricity. However, while there is no carbon dioxide “waste” as in burning fossil fuels, the “spent” rods of nuclear fuel and other products constitute grave radioactive waste, which is hard if not impossible to dispose of. Many countries like the USA just bury their nuclear waste in remote thinly populated desert areas.

Rational choice between energy sources depends on costs determined by history and geography. France has 59 of the 441 or so civilian nuclear reactors in the world, and generates 78% of its electricity from them, 22% from hydroelectricity. Japan has 54 reactors and generates 34% of its electricity from them. The USA has 104 reactors but generates only 20% of its electricity from them, principally because it has vast alternative sources of energy. In India, installed power generating capacity as of 2003 was 107,533.3MW, of which 71% was from burning fossil fuels. Hydroelectric potential is 150,000MWe. In 2003, total installed hydro capacity with utilities was 26,910MWe (about 18% of the potential). More than 70% of India’s hydroelectric potential is in the North and NorthEast regions put together.


India’s 14 nuclear reactors produce less than 4% of the total electricity being consumed in the country. Even if all other sources of electricity remained constant, and our civilian nuclear capacity alone was made to grow by 100% under the Manmohan-Montek deal with the USA, that would mean less than 8% of total Indian electricity produced. So the first question India’s citizens must ask is why such a fuss has been created about the Manmohan-Montek deal with America. Clearly, the Government of India must come wholly clean with all the facts and analysis it has available on the whole problem of India’s energy future in all its complexity and detail. If and when it does so, we may simply find that the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves. Whether the US-India nuclear deal stands or falls, it will have scant effect in satisfying the country’s energy needs.

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