Sunday, July 27, 2008

Electricity from Nuclear Power – A layman’s research!

Ok .. so the government won the Trust Vote (amidst accusations, mayhem and a general mockery of the Indian democratic system) - but what does that mean to you and me and the rest of the (unsuspecting) masses?

According to me there are 3 main issues ..
1. Is the cost of electricity from a Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) really cheaper?
2. Is Nuclear Power better and ‘cleaner’?
3. Does India have to depend on the US (only) for Uranium?

Hey, I said, “according to ME” .. ok? This is MY blog…and I have the right to rant here :)
Anyway, I found no ready answers in our print & television media, as these guys are more obsessed with sensationalizing the shameful proceedings that went on.

So, I decided to spend some time Googling (is this now a valid word??) on another wet 26/7 in Mumbai, and here’s what I found.

Ok, here’s a caveat - I’m NOT an expert and there may be mistakes, but I have tried to summarize what I have understood from my readings across the Internet.

Here goes…

Question: Is electricity from Nuclear Power, cheaper?
My Answer: YES

From what I understand, when speaking of costs, there are two types: Internal and External. Internal costs are those which are incurred directly while generating energy, while External costs are those which are incurred in relation to health and the environment. External costs are quantifiable, but not built in directly into the cost of electricity.

In terms of Internal costs, Nuclear energy incurs about one-tenth of the costs of coal, so that makes it really cheap. And here’s the clincher, if you add up the (quantifiable) External costs, the cost from Coal increases by another 100% and that from Gas, increases by another 30%, making these two even more costly – and all of this is without adding the costs of global warming (since this is not quantifiable yet).

At first glance, the costs of setting up (and fuelling) a NPP seem much higher. However, when costs are declared for Nuclear energy, these always HAVE to include the entire cycle of costs (spent fuel management, plant decommissioning and final waste disposal), whereas, the costs for other technologies need not account for these directly.

So though, at first glance, such figures may seem higher, when you actually take into account carbon-dioxide emissions, waste disposal, etc., Nuclear energy is actually cheaper.I came across one official study done in Finland in August 2003 which compared all the costs (fixed, running and emission) of a Nuclear, Coal & Gas Plant. The final figures worked out to Nuclear 23.7 euro cents per MWh, Gas 39.2 cents and Coal 44.3 cents.

The study also analyzed the effect of the doubling of basic Fuel prices. If Fuel prices doubled, the cost of Nuclear energy would rise only 9%, but energy from Coal would rise 31% and that from Gas would rise 60% !! This is because the cost of Fuel in a NPP is relatively smaller percentage than the cost of Fuel in a Coal or a Gas power plant.

Next Question: Is Nuclear Power better and ‘cleaner’?
My Answer: YOU BET!

Coal-powered plants use 3,200 Million Tonnes of Coal each year to produce 38% of the world’s electricity. NPPs use only 61,000 Tonnes of Uranium for 16% of the world’s electricity.

Coal is generally used in the country where it is mined and sometimes has to be transported over a large distance to the Power plants, which further requires energy (in transportation) and causes greenhouse gas emissions (on the way).

In comparison, very little Uranium is required to do the same job. Consider the following facts:
1. A 1000 MWe NPP requiring 27 tonnes of fresh fuel per year is an average of about 74 kg per day.
2. A 1000 MWe Coal plant needs 8600 Tonnes of coal to be delivered every day.
3. Nuclear Plants have a Carbon Dioxide emission rate of 16 g/kWh, while Gas Plants emit 356g and Coal Plants emit a whopping 891g.
4. Every 22 Tonnes of Uranium used, we avoid an emission of 1,000,000 Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide, relative to Coal.
5. When the electricity comes from Coal, 1 kiloWatt hour (kWh) of it results in about 1 Kg of Carbon Dioxide being emitted.

Last Question: Does India have to depend on the US (only) for Uranium?
My Answer: NO !

Uranium is a slightly radioactive metal that occurs throughout the earth's crust. It is about 500 times more abundant than gold and about as common as tin. Over half of the world's production of uranium from mines is from Canada (23%), Australia (21%) and Kazakhstan (16%). USA does only 4% of the production.

In 2008, the world would require 64,615 Tonnes of Uranium only for NPPs generating electricity. The largest requirement is of the US 29%, followed by France 16%, Japan 12%, Germany 5%, Russia 5%, South Korea 5%.

India’s requirement right now is a miniscule 2% at 978 Tonnes if its 17 reactors operate at full capacity. Presently, on account of the lack of supply, many of these are operating below capacity, some at around 50%.

The combined installed capacity in India stands at 3779 MWe which generates about 16 billion kWh of electricity - a mere 2.5% of our total electricity generated presently.

India also has huge reserves of Uranium - about 56,000 Tonnes of it! But this is of poor quality of ore which cannot really be used for the NPPs and hence we need to buy this from other countries (Australia, Canada & Kazaksthan). Now these other countries will not supply it to us, unless we are part of a global agreement that agrees to not use this purchased Uranium for military purposes.

So, if we sign the agreement with the US, we can get to buy the Uranium from other countries, to fuel our NPPs and use it for civilian (non-military) purposes.

Well, as I see it, it seems to be a win-win situation! See, India produces about 430 Tonnes of good quality, usable Uranium per year. Most of this goes to the NPPs and maybe some part, towards our own military purpose.

In future, the situation will change as we have another 25 Nuclear reactors (planned and/or under construction) taking our capacity from 3779 MWe to 20,115 MWe. This is almost 5 times our present requirement. Now WHERE are we going to get the Uranium to Fuel this if we don’t sign the agreement!

Obviously, when we started off planning for these reactors, the government KNEW that we cannot produce this Uranium within the country and we would HAVE to purchase this from outside… so why create a hungama NOW when the time to sign the Agreement has come?

If we didn’t want to give up our so-called ‘nuclear-independence,’ why did the Government plan to construct so many Nuclear Reactors in the first place?? It’s pretty obvious we didn’t have the Uranium then, and we don’t have the Uranium now!!

Now, here’s an interesting bit of news. NPPs can also use a mineral called Thorium – of which India has a whopping 319,000 Tonnes of, which is almost one-fifth of the world’s reserves. Here’s the good news. All of this is usable for NPPs, after some amount of processing, which we already DO even now.

So here’s my take .. let’s sign the Agreement, buy the Uranium from outside for electricity generation purposes and lets process our own Thorium for generating Uranium for our military purposes ..

Hey, doesn’t that sound too simple ?? So why the hell didn’t someone just tell it to us like this??

Well ... and that's how I feel ...

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