If not solar energy, what should India use (Part 2)
The uncertainty about the timing of fusion energy commercialisation is like the Sword of Damocles hanging over new electricity investments. Anyone who builds a nuclear or coal plant today faces game-changing competition from cheap fusion energy, possibly within 20 years.
Partly as a result of this uncertainty, investment in new nuclear plants has languished. Safety issues are not a serious obstacle, despite the common perception. The accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima involved first-generation plants designed decades ago. Such accidents are close to impossible in newer plants which are now into the fourth generation. Despite these accidents, the total loss of life from nuclear energy per unit of electricity production has been far lower than from other energy sources.
The real obstacle to nuclear energy today is its economic viability. Cost over-runs, waste storage costs and the need for subsidies in some cases have put brakes on large scale nuclear expansion. While nuclear energy currently supplies around 11 per cent of the world’s electricity from around 450 nuclear power reactors, its growth trajectory is unclear.
A small revival seems to be underway. The USA – the world’s biggest nuclear energy producer with 98 reactors – is finally building its first new nuclear plant in thirty years, at Waynesboro in Georgia. This plant is funded by a private consortium and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia. This plant has been going through a rough time involving huge cost over-runs. The US government has finally stepped in with a loan guarantee, but that is a really bad call.
China perhaps produces its nuclear plants at lower cost or maybe it is not bothered much about costs. Of the 55-odd reactors under construction worldwide, around a dozen are being built in China, and while it only has 46 nuclear reactors at present, China is said to be aiming for nearly 200 nuclear reactors by 2050. This sounds rather implausible, given the impending commercialisation of fusion energy.
India has 22 nuclear reactors located in seven nuclear power plants and is building seven more reactors. Our party’s position is that any further reactors should be built only by private proponents without any government support. Further, such plants must not only meet necessary safety requirements, they must pay the government for long term waste storage.
There is a new kid on the block: the small modular reactor (SMR). Apparently, SMRs can dramatically reduce costs because they can be built in factories, benefiting from economies of scale. Some of these use new coolants such as molten salt. All of them are fool-proof, with the reactor automatically shutting down in an emergency. And thorium use is expected to minimise radioactive waste.
Unfortunately, most of the SMR ideas are in the design stage with the exception of a US government-supported reactor under a public-private partnership being built in Idaho National Laboratory, expected to be operational by 2026. Further, France has announced just the other day that it is discussing an SMR with US company Westinghouse.
India can speed up private investment in SMRs by creating a performance-based regulatory regime in which most risks are managed through design. ThorCon International has chosen to work with the Indonesian government to create a demonstration molten salt SMR because US regulation is apparently excessive.
The next source of energy is fossil fuels which remain the mainstay for electricity in almost all countries, including India. These are widely available and do not have any intermittency problem. They have some unwanted by-products, such as soot and toxic gases including sulphur and nitrous oxides which can harm health and even cost lives.
Further, traces of toxic metals that were previously locked up inside these fuels can be released into the environment as part of the energy extraction process. Fossil fuel mining can also take lives, particularly in socialist India with its poor safety practices.
Despite these risks, coal and gas will continue to provide cheap electricity for India in the near future. Diesel is also vitally needed, given the erratic performance of India’s socialist grid as a result of which many Indians have installed mid-size diesel generators in their homes. India has abundant reserves of coal but only limited reserves of oil and natural gas. Significant mining policy reforms are needed to maximise the extraction of fossil fuels, including through the privatisation of public sector enterprises like Coal India.
Our party has a strong focus on improving the safety performance of mining industries. This will, of course, require the broader range of governance reforms without which there can be no effective enforcement. Further, coal-fired electricity plants need to be transitioned to less polluting and more efficient technologies.
Next in terms of energy density is hydro-electricity which harnesses the potential energy stored in rain. Raindrops are very dilute but get concentrated in dams, leading to low marginal costs of energy production. Modern dams are also generally very safe, although lives can sometimes be lost during construction.
The initial harm to the habitat in dams can be minimised through careful planning to ensure species survival. Longer-term harm can be minimised through technological solutions, such as by building safe passages for fish and river animals. There are also many offsetting environmental benefits of dams such as the reduction in natural variability of water flows and minimisation of floods.
Reservoirs also attract migrating birds and increase fish production.
As mentioned earlier, the government would need to retain ownership of large hydro-power but anyone should be able to build small hydro-electric plants under a regulatory regime that protects the environment.
Finally, we have the ultra-dilute energy sources – solar, wind, ocean waves and tides. Extracting energy from such sources is theoretically and practically not worthwhile and can also cause serious societal and environmental harm.
Much of the popular support for these dilute energy sources comes from the misplaced global warming hysteria. But CO2 brings a significant net benefit to society. Those who are concerned about CO2 should put their money (as private investors) into fusion and nuclear energy instead of forcing taxpayers to subsidise seriously harmful “renewable energy”.
Within this broad policy framework, India’s market will be able to choose the most cost-effective energy solutions. As technology improves, different forms of energy will become viable. Fusion energy holds the key to the future but until then fossil fuels, particularly coal, will likely provide the cheapest, unsubsidised energy to India and the world.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.