India Needs to Wake Up From Its Nuclear Fantasy

Nuclear power generation in India has consistently failed to meet projected output. The Indian nuclear establishment needs to stop promoting nuclear power as a viable source of clean energy.

The potential of nuclear power to generate high amounts of energy with few carbon emissions is being debated[1]. While some argue for nuclear expansion as a solution to the looming energy crisis, the others oppose it, citing the challenges involved in generating and managing nuclear energy. At present, only India and China are attempting to expand their nuclear generation capabilities. Other nuclear powers have either stopped constructing new nuclear reactors or are gradually reducing their share of nuclear energy (Kostikov et al 2019). 

India’s response to the climate crisis began with the National Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008. Subsequent policies, including the 12th Plan (2012–2017) and the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which was submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2015, projected cutting greenhouse gas emissions and also identified alternate sources for future energy. This transition to renewable energy sources was one of the highlights of India’s policy focus (Dubash et al 2018). One of the major targets in energy transition was to achieve a cumulative 45% installed electricity generation capacity from non fossil fuel–based energy sources by 2030. However, according to latest estimates, India currently produces 57% of its total energy from coal, 8% from gas and diesel, 13% from hydropower, 20% from other renewable sources[2], and only two percent from nuclear power (GoI 2019).

Since the inception of India’s civil nuclear programme, nuclear power has been touted as one of the major energy sources for the future. Recent policy projections highlight the importance of nuclear energy in reducing carbon emissions. According to India’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on INDCs,

“India is promoting Nuclear Power as a safe, environmentally benign and economically viable source to meet the increasing electricity needs of the country. With a 2.2% share in current installed capacity, total installed capacity of nuclear power in operation is 5780 MW. Additionally six reactors with an installed capacity of 4300 MW are at different stages of commissioning and construction. Efforts are being made to achieve 63 GW installed capacity by the year 2032, if supply of fuel is ensured.”

Further, according to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE),

“Given India’s large energy needs, these commitments render nuclear power to be one of the few credible and sustainable non-fossil energy resources with the least carbon footprint that can meet the robust base load demands to drive India’s future industrialisation and growth. We are, therefore, convinced that for an energy-starved country like India, nuclear power offers a reliable and environmentally-sensitive answer to climate change” (DAE 2019). 

In 2018, the first secretary of India’s Mission to the UN, Sandeep Kumar Bayyapu, emphasised the importance of nuclear power in meeting India’s energy goals.

“Nuclear power remains an important option to meet the challenges of increased energy demand, address concerns about climate change, redress volatile fossil fuel prices and ensure security of the energy supply” (Bayappu 2018).

Bayyapu also sought support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to to build public acceptance for their nuclear project. 

Nuclear Energy Projections

The post-colonial Indian state began its nuclear programme in 1948 by establishing the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1954, the Department of Atomic Energy was established under the direct supervision of the office of the prime minister. Homi Bhabha, the founder of India’s nuclear programme, projected that by the 1980s, India would generate 8,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear energy, and the IAEA in 1960 predicted that India would produce 43,500 MW of nuclear energy (Ramana 2010). However, by 1980, the installed capacity was only about 600 MW and by 2000 had reached only 2,720 MW. In 1999, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India noted that,

“Against the targeted additional power generation of 940 MW by 1995-96, gradually increasing to 7880 MW by 2001, the actual additional generation of power under the profile as of March 1998 was nil in spite of having incurred an expenditure of 52.91 billion rupees” (Ramana 2010).

According to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), the energy generation targets after 2004 were to provide 20 gigawatts (GW) by 2020 and 60 GW by 2032. This target was reiterated in 2010 and later increased to 63 GW in 2011 (World Nuclear Association 2019). In 2007, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pushed for the civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States (US), and announced in the Lok Sabha that India's nuclear energy target for the year 2020 would be 20,000 MW, which was considered a modest target (MEA 2007). In the wake of the India-US nuclear deal in 2008, the waiver in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and various nuclear cooperation agreements with countries like the US, France, Russia, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and Japan, the DAE projected to produce 470 GW electricity by 2052 (Ramana 2009).
The current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has also continued this pattern of high projections, estimating that India would produce  63,000 MW of nuclear energy by 2032. In January 2017, the Perspective Transmission Plan, prepared by the Central Electricity Authority as a part of the Draft National Electricity Plan, estimated that India’s peak power demand would increase from 153 GWs to 690 GWs of electricity by 2035. Using this projection, the current government approved the construction of 10 nuclear reactors with a combined capacity of more than 7,000 MWs. However, according to recent data from the NPCIL, India currently produces only 6,780 MWs of nuclear power, which is generated by 22 reactors (NPCIL nd). 

Behind India's Failing Nuclear Programme 

Ramana (2012) and Bidwai (2014) identify some of the core reasons why India’s nuclear power outputs fail to match its projections. They argue that the DAE’s plans are technologically unsound, the nuclear establishment is unable to learn from its past mistakes, and local opposition to the construction of plants hinders the growth of nuclear energy in India. Going by past experience, India has a history of delaying the completion of nuclear power projects. For instance, the initial reactors at the Kudankulam Power Project in Tamil Nadu took more than 30 years to begin generating power, and even then, reactors would frequently shut down. According to the CAG’s 2017 report, “there were major delays in start of commercial operations of Units I and II by 86 and 101 months respectively due to delayed supply of equipment/working documents by overseas collaborating partner, changes in design, additional works, erection delays etc” (CAG 2007). The report also highlighted that nuclear projects in India cost more than their initial estimates, and even then, often performed poorly. The estimated cost of units I and II of the Kudankulam project was Rs 13,171 crore, which later rose to 22,462 crore in 2014. 

The Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project, proposed in Maharashtra’s Konkan region, is one of the largest nuclear power projects in the world, with a proposed generating capacity of 9,900 MW  (Raju and Ramana 2019). However, the project, which was supposed to begin construction in 2010, is currently in limbo. Areva, a French nuclear power company, was initially supposed to supply reactors, but the contract was later transferred to Électricité de France, a French electric utility company. Beyond land acquisition, the project is currently dormant (NPCIL nd) (DAE nd). Reactors at Kakrapar and Rajasthan are also behind schedule, and units III and IV at Kudankulam have only recently begun construction. Even when all seven of the current reactors under construction are operational, only 5,400 MWs more will be generated, well below projected estimates.


Nuclear Power Reactors Currently Under Construction in India

Reactor Type Energy (in MW) Project Control Construction started Commercial operation due
Kalpakkam  Fast breeder reactor 500.470 BHAVINI October 2004 2020
Kakrapur 3 Pressurised heavy water reactor 700.630 NPCIL November 2010 2022
Kakrapur 4 Pressurised heavy water reactor 700.630 NPCIL March 2011 2022
Rajasthan 7 Pressurised heavy water reactor 700.630 NPCIL July 2011 2022
Rajasthan 8 Pressurised heavy water reactor 1,050.917 NPCIL September 2011 2022
Kudankulam 3 Pressurised water reactor 1,050.917 NPCIL June 2017 2025
Kudankulam 4 Pressurised water reactor   NPCIL October 2017 2026
Total (7)   5,400      

Source: World Nuclear Association, 2019

Another significant development is the recent joint statement issued by the US and India at the 9th round of India-US Strategic Security Dialogue in March 2019, where the US agreed to construct six nuclear power plants in India (Ministry of External Affairs 2019). However, Westinghouse Electric Company, the company that was supposed to supply AP1000 reactors for these power plants, has only recently emerged from a bankruptcy settlement in the US, casting doubt on the project's future (Joshi 2019). 

Opposition to Nuclear Power in India

Local opposition has erupted where nuclear power projects are proposed and constructed. In addition to mass movements against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu (Doshi 2016 and Khan 2018) and the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in Maharashtra (Deshpande 2017), people have also opposed the proposed plant in Kovada, Andhra Pradesh, where a 6,600 MW nuclear power station is to be built (Rao 2017). In Gorakhpur, Haryana, farmers have rallied against the proposed 2,800 MW nuclear power plant (Banerjee and Ramanathan 2015). In Chutka, Madhya Pradesh, locals are protesting against a 1,400 MW project (PTI 2018). In Mithi Virdi, Gujarat, a proposed 6,000 MW project has been shifted due to opposition by farmers (Dhar 2017). The West Bengal government has also refused to allow a nuclear plant to be built in Haripur. There have also been protests against the construction of additional units at the Kaiga Generating Station (KGS) in Karnataka and at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu (Sanjiv 2018). 

Police brutality, charges of sedition and of waging war against the state have been slapped on protestors. In Kudankulam alone, 8,952 people were charged with sedition and around 11,000 people were charged with waging war against the state. Four people were killed, several others were injured and hundreds of people, including women, have spent months in jail (Khan 2018). In Jaitapur, two people died while protesting, many were injured and several spent time in jail with serious charges. Opposition at other nuclear plant sites have been brutally suppressed by the police and paramilitary forces. Locals opposing nuclear power projects have several concerns such as the inherent safety and security of nuclear power, particularly since the Fukushima disaster. Locals are also worried about adequate compensation for land, loss of life and livelihood, fabricated environmental impact assessment reports, lack of transparency and accountability of the Indian nuclear establishment. India also has one of the worst track records of dealing with disasters—the Bhopal gas tragedy and the 2006 tsunami being just a few examples. Most of these concerns are not part of policy discussion, but those who raise such concerns are labeled as anti-development and anti-national (Senthalir 2012).

The Future of Nuclear Power 

Going by the current situation of nuclear energy generation in India, it is unlikely that even half of the projects currently under construction will be met on time. The political class does not seem to be  bothered if projected targets are met or not. As long as nuclear energy enjoys elite and exclusive power, large projections from proposed nuclear projects may continue, but outputs will remain stagnant. If India is to realise its exponential nuclear expansion plan, it will first have to seriously engage with fundamental flaws prevalent in its attempts to generate nuclear power. It will also have to address the long delays in project materialisation. Political will, technology and financing will not be enough. India will need to conduct bilateral agreements with supplier countries and companies, exclusionary nuclear regulatory regimes and a deeper engagement with international politics is also necessary. In addition, India will have to address local stakeholders’s opposition to nuclear power projects in a democratic and transparent manner. Even then, India’s nuclear sector will only be able to contribute energy slowly and with a relatively lower proportion of energy generation. Within the current context of climate change, it is better not to highlight nuclear power as a viable source of energy. Rather, India needs to rethink nuclear energy projections and instead concentrate on alternative sectors for its future energy requirements.





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