Archive for October 2008

Uranium Problems and India’s Energy Future

October 28, 2008

More critical and unbiased thinking please

Surendra Gadekar has an article in the latest Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which he asserts that the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal won’t save India from energy problems. Even assuming that this fact holds, Dr. Gadekar seems to think that it logically implies that India should not pursue nuclear power or at the very least put it on the back burner.

The logic is a little messy and ignores some facts.

To be fair, the article has a lively history of India’s determined efforts to wisely go for CANDU heavy water rather than light water reactors (uranium enrichment is much more technologically demanding than heavy water production), and its continued commitment to nuclear research even in the face of worldwide sanctions imposed by the 1974 test. Dr. Gadekar then talks about the dismal state of India’s uranium resources with most regions containing extremely low-grade ore, making it expensive to mine. In many regions officials are unwilling to mine because of local pressure and the Maoist insurgency.

So far so good. One would think that it’s precisely these factors that would make the nuclear deal attractive. But then Dr. Gadekar goes in a different direction, claiming that France and the United States’s ‘moribund’ reactor industries would somehow force the Indian government to buy not just fuel but also reactors. I don’t think I have read a statement to the effect that the government wants to buy reactors by default along with fuel. In any case, if the government does it, Gadekar says that the price of nuclear power will go up.

The conclusion? The nuclear deal is bad for India and nuclear is not the way to go, according to Dr. Gadekar. If nuclear power is really going to become expensive, then wouldn’t we want to adopt the opposite position for now and lap up all the nuclear fuel that we can? Fear that uranium prices would go up in the future as more countries adopt nuclear power should just mean that India with its already well-developed nuclear capacity should embark on a crash program to generate more power with our existing reactors which are for years running at partial capacity.

But a more important development which Dr. Gadekar ignores is that in thorium processing. The Advanced Heavy Water Reactor is one of the most advanced nuclear reactors in the world and the result of years of doughty development by India’s nuclear scientists and engineers. India plans to start serial production of AHWRs by 2020. Here’s what Charles Barton, a veteran nuclear engineer who has retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (a vast industrial complex built for extracting the Manhattan Project’s uranium), has to say:

The Indians are engaged in a significant thorium fuel cycle. The Indians have already built and tested both thorium fuel cycle proof of concept and developmental thorium fuel cycle reactors and have built or are building prototype thorium fuel cycle reactors including the just completed AHWR, the soon to be completed Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam, and the more advanced , Fast Thorium Breeder Reactor (FTBR) underdevelopment at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai is the second thorium fuel cycle breeder. The Indians are in the last stage of a 3 stage developmental program for a complex Uranium/thorium reactor fuel system, that is many times more energy efficient than the Uranium/light water reactor fuel system.

The Indians plan to build thorium fuel cycle reactor capable of producing 20 GWy of electrical energy by 2020, and to produces 30% of their electricity from thorium cycle reactors by 2050. Indian scientists calculate that the assurred thorium reserve of India is large enough to provide it with electricity for 400 years.

More efficiency will mean dwindling cost of uranium as well as efficient exploitation of India’s vast thorium resources. But this can only happen if nuclear development is not impeded and more efficient ways of exploiting both uranium and thorium are investigated. Dr. Gadekar’s opinion seems to imply that the scenario for nuclear power based on uranium is so pessimistic that we should forgo the nuclear deal and nuclear development or at least not pursue them vigorously. Not so paradoxically, this very action will indeed hamper future development.

In the end, if Dr. Gadekar really thinks that nuclear is not the way to go, he should shed light on alternative efficient, plentiful and cheap sources of energy. The reader is unfortunately left groping in the dark when Dr. Gadekar sheds not light but darkness on any such analysis with a single concluding statement;

India’s true energy crisis lies in its inability to harness its sunlight and biomass, which would provide a truly useful resource for the majority of its people

This seems to contradict all of Gadekar’s beef with uranium prices. I would be very interested to know how exactly Dr. Gadekar thinks solar power or biomass will produce energy as cheaply as he thinks uranium won’t. Unlike Gadekar, I am not discounting the role that solar and biomass will play in India’s future energy needs. But the technology for their large-scale use is still expensive and far off; nuclear technology is already widely used and highly developed, and pound for pound, nuclear still provides the biggest bang for your buck. India with its power-hungry economy needs as much of this as possible. What it does not need are superficially plausible arguments based on incomplete data. Dr. Gadekar may be well-meaning, but I have a feeling that since he edits a magazine named Anumukti which as its name suggests is in favour of a non-nuclear India, he already is wedded to dogma. It’s sad when intelligent people like Dr. Gadekar try to pen reasonable arguments when they have long since already taken sides.

© Ashutosh Jogalekar

The deal is finalized: now stop bomb building

October 3, 2008

So it seems that India’s nuclear deal with the US is almost finalized. Most people in India who care will agree that the deal bodes well for the country; it will create jobs, bring much needed technology needed for expanding clean, safe and efficient nuclear power and hopefully put India in the league of nations like France and Japan who get most of their energy from nuclear. The deal will also bring India dual-purpose technology which can be used for other civilian benefits. This will be a double boon for the country, considering the great energy demand that’s going to materialize in modern and globalized India in the next twenty years.

Critics of the deal of course point out that it will undermine the NPT. But the NPT was undoubtedly undermined right at the beginning when it unfairly pitted countries like India against countries like the US and the Soviet Union which had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. While the provisions of the treaty called for the US and USSR to significantly reduce their arsenals in the coming decades, in practice the two countries simply expanded them in a frenzied arms race and even now, more than twenty five years after the end of the Cold War, possess thousands of weapons on hair-trigger alert. Given these facts, it was unfair for India or most other nuclear power-seeking countries to accept the treaty as it was conceived.

What might be a valid criticism is the allegation that this deal is part of the Bush administration’s unilateral worldview where it alone decides who to give a pass and who to put up on the firing line when it comes to nuclear matters. As in other matters regarding the administration, the move seems to signify blatant hypocrisy. The usual complaint is that the deal clearly plays favourites. But the fact is that playing favourites in fact is legitimate, because some countries like India have been responsible nuclear powers while others like Pakistan have simply not been. How can you talk about treating countries the same if they are not the same in reality? This is one of those ironic situations where the Bush administration seems to have taken the right step even if it was part of a wrong philosophy.

Now, playing favourites certainly creates an imbalance and prompts countries like Pakistan to build more weapons, and that’s a real concern in the minds of many. But there are two arguments here; first of all India has a good deterrent ability and Pakistan’s building more weapons is not going to pose any additional threat to it. Secondly and more importantly, climate change has taken us so far to the brink of destruction that obtaining clean and carbon-free energy is much more important than even worrying about some inevitable proliferation that’s going to happen. Thirdly of course, going by what is happening in Pakistan, it’s unfortunately always going to pose a problem for India whether it does anything or not.

But what India can do to minimize proliferation is to stop building any more nuclear weapons. It has achieved a minimum deterrent capability. More weapons are only going to lead to an arms race between it and the Pakistanis without providing real strategic benefits. As Robert Oppenheimer would say, “India’s two-thousandth weapon will not in any deep, strategic sense offset Pakistan’s two-hundredth weapon”. In the future India can focus on delivery systems and stockpile maintenance. That could send the clearest possible message to Pakistan. It will say that India is a responsible nuclear power who has achieved the minimum arsenal necessary for deterrence and will now only practice peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It will ask of Pakistan whether it can step up to the challenge and do the same. Pakistan can make of this peaceful message what it wants to. But India will have played its responsible part.