Calcutta Notebook


The Government is making huge efforts to secure membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) so that it is possible to make imports of uranium and also access frontline nuclear power technologies.

For one thing Nuclear power is becoming expensive by the day. First problem is that demand for compensation from affected people is rising. Second problem is that this electricity is inherently expensive. Few new nuclear plants are being established in the world nowadays. These plants can wreck havoc in case of a disaster as it happened at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The Fukushima disaster has forced the Government to enact a stiff liability law. Suppliers of components are to be held responsible in case of a disaster. The suppliers build cost in their quotations for the equipment. That makes nuclear power even more expensive. The cost increases further because power companies want to locate these plants near water sources that invariably lie in densely populated areas. Thus plants like Narora and Kudankulam have been established in densely populated area on banks of the Ganga and the sea coast respectively. This leads to local opposition. Nuclear plants and people compete for control of water sources. The way out would be to make these plants in less habited areas like Bidar in Karnataka and Pokhran in Rajasthan. But this would push up the cost once again. Despite these problems, nuclear power is the second best option for India after solar. Difficulty is that India doesn't have adequate reserves of uranium in the country. No doubt membership of the NSG will much reduce the problems of access to uranium.

Nuclear power is second best because of the steep reduction in the cost of solar power. The Government was able to buy electric power from new solar plants at a price of less than Rs 5 per unit recently. This is cheaper than all other sources of electricity including new thermal, hydro or nuclear plants. Sunlight is available in plenty in the Deccan Plateau and Thar Desert, hence it also ensures energy security. The Government has already embarked on a massive programme for promoting solar energy. The problem with solar is that it is available during the day hour only.

There are two possible solutions to this problem. One solution is to store the solar electricity produced during the day and use it during the night. One way of doing this is to pump water from a lower reservoir to a reservoir located at a higher elevation during the day time when solar electricity is available. Then the water can be released from the higher reservoir during the evening and night to produce electricity. Another technology is to use day time solar power to superheat certain liquids and use the heated liquid to generate power during the evening. One can use daytime solar power in the night by the adoption of such technologies. Another way is to introduce time-of-day pricing of electricity. Say the price of electricity for the consumer is Rs 6 per unit today. It can be provided that electricity consumed during the daytime will be charged at Rs 5 per unit while electricity consumed during the night will be charged at Rs 7 per unit. Then consumers will switch on their washing machines and geysers during the day rather than during the night. Industrialists will run the factories during the day. In this way the demand for power during the day time will be increased and supplied by solar power.

It is also necessary to reduce the consumption of electricity generally. It is seen that the standard of living is higher in countries that have a high consumption of electricity. Thus the Government is determined to meet all the electricity demanded by the people. There is a need to revisit this concept. It is indeed true that the standard of living increased much with the initial increase in consumption of electricity. The student is able to study in the night, the family can sleep comfortably under a ceiling fan, and the homemaker is able to charge her mobile phone and watch TV. But the further increases in consumption of electricity do not bring forth as much improvement in the standard of living. The use of air conditioner and washing machine helps but only in a small way. Therefore, the authorities must strive to meet the basic needs of all the citizens and try to reduce the demand from upscale consumers. This objective can be attained by making a hugely progressive pricing of electricity Consumption up to 100 units per month can be charged at Rs 4 per unit but consumption above 1000 units per month may be charged at Rs 15 per unit. This will lead the upscale consumers to reduce their consumption without sacrificing much in the standard of living. The demand from these upscale consumers constitutes bulk of the domestic demand. Reduction of consumption by these will bring down the total consumption and enable the government to meet energy requirements from solar and nuclear power.

Thermal and hydro are not suitable for use because of the huge environmental costs. The price of domestic electricity today is around Rs 6 per unit. The actual cost of thermal and hydro electricity is about Rs 10 per unit if the environmental costs are factored in. People are not willing to buy large amounts of electricity at Rs 10 per unit. Indians have pushed themselves into a regressive cycle. This regressive cycle can be broken by increasing the cost of electricity to the upscale consumers in particular and using the additional receipt to compensate the affected poor people. This will reduce demand for electricity and enable the government meet the same without having to make more thermal and hydro plants.

Within nuclear power India must move from uranium-based to thorium-based generation of nuclear energy. The latter technology is not fully developed as of now. China is expected to commission the first thorium-based commercial reactor soon. These reactors are more expensive than uranium-based reactors. The cost of nuclear electricity is high anyways. The additional increase by moving from uranium- to thorium; and moving the location from habited- to uninhabited areas must be borne because thorium is available in the country and energy security will be established. The combination of solar, time-of-the-day pricing, progressive pricing, and thorium will make available 24x7 electricity and also ensure India's energy security.

Vol. 49, No.2, Jul 17 - 23, 2016