Friday, July 04, 2008

Nuclear energy: facts clarified

I was both surprised, and rather disappointed to see Brahma Chellaney, eminent Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, an independent, privately funded think-tank, and member of the Policy Advisory Group headed by the Foreign Minister of India, write against the nuclear deal. In his recent article titled, "Too much hot air in nuke deal," published in the Economic Times (link to his blog), he argues that "a major myth propagated is that greater nuclear-generated electricity will help reduce India’s oil-import dependency." I find it impossible to accept most of the reasons Chellaney puts forward against the deal.

Let me start with the first argument. He argues that,

"The link between nuclear power and oil is specious. In the years ahead, the world could move toward electric vehicles and even use grid power to make hydrogen for the fuel-cell vehicles of the future... But today, greater nuclear-generated electricity is not going to really reduce any country’s oil needs, certainly not India’s. In fact, with little overlap in the oil and nuclear global-market structures, nuclear power now competes principally against coal, natural gas and renewables."

I beg to differ. Nuclear fuel does not compete with renewables. Indeed, it competes with coal and natural gas. But coal and natural gas, like oil, are non-renewable sources of energy. According to a report on the CSLF site, about 30% of India's energy needs are met by oil, and more than 60% of that oil is imported. Also, India is the sixth largest consumer of petroleum in the world, accounting for about 2.9% of the total world consumption of oil. This may not seem like a lot, given that per capita consumption is far lower than that of developed countries. It is indeed distressing that nearly 30% of total energy required is supplied by oil. What will happen when the world runs out of oil? Too scary to imagine, right? The same report states that about 70% of electricity generated is by use of coal. What happens when there is no coal left? Chellaney's argument that the world's uranium reserves will last just another 85 years is difficult to believe. He cites an IAEA report, which he claims forecasts the amount of uranium available. A detailed reading of the report reveals that Chellaney, in fact, has not revealed all the details of the report. A press communiqué by the IAEA states that,

"Based on the 2006 nuclear electricity generation rate and current technology, the identified resource base will remain sufficient for 100 years. However, total world uranium resources are dynamic and related to commodity prices. The uranium industry has reacted to recent increases in the price of uranium by launching major new investments in exploration, which can be expected to lead to further additions to the uranium resource base. Worldwide exploration expenditures in 2006 totalled over USD 774 million, an increase of over 250% compared to 2004. Expenditures in 2007, for which data are not yet final, are expected to match those in 2006."

The overall tone of the communiqué is rather optimistic and is conveyed succinctly by the title,

"Uranium resources sufficient to meet projected nuclear energy requirements long into the future."

A second fact that must be considered is the quantity of uranium required in reactors. We are talking about a few kilograms of uranium, whereas in the case of coal, it is closer to a few million metric tonnes. That should give us some idea about the feasibility of using uranium as primary fuel for nuclear reactors. Also, Chellaney keeps talking about why nuclear fuel will not reduce India's oil imports. It will not. I agree. But if we, as citizens and thinking individuals, bother to look beyond the next few general elections and into the future, we will see that nuclear energy is the way to go. Of course, nuclear fuel will not make our cars run on hydrogen. But, at least we will not be paying through our nose for thermal energy, especially since coal reserves are fast declining. In a century or two, there will be no coal left to exploit.

For more information on the situation of nuclear fuel in India, see this report. One fact cannot be ignored. India has not signed the NPT, and for good reason. If it wishes to gain access to uranium reserves elsewhere, it must sign the deal. India has vast reserves of thorium. Even if we do develop indigenous technology, we need uranium to kick-start the reaction. To cut a long story short, we need uranium. And to get that uranium, we need the deal. Can it get any clearer? It is frustrating to see "experts" being so short-sighted.

6 comments:

RK said...

Amruta,
Good post. I too am disappointed to learn that Brahma Chellaney was against the deal. I can understand agenda driven politicians being against the deal but not the likes of him. Let us say he is right and the deal does not reduce India's dependance on oil - so what? The N-deal does give us a choice of another source of engery for power generation and it does reduce our dependance on coal and natural gas. That alone justifies the deal. When do guys like him ever get a practical outlook? Good grief!

The Minking Than said...

I think he meant the current segmentation of the usage of energy from different fuel sources. Transportation is the segment that uses oil primarily. Nuclear energy is not going to decrease oil usage in the short term. But that is only a short term issue. As oil prices rise, electric car numbers and their affordability are both going to increase. More public transportation systems are going to move to electricity. Mass transit systems based on electricity are going to increase. Thus, in the long term the use of oil in transportation sector is going to decrease. Surprising to see the statement come from an eminent scientist as him.

LOVECHARM said...

Great article.
@rk: I'm too disappointed on Brahma Chellaney's attitude.
I hope to read more article's like this.

Amrutha said...

Minking than: I am glad you look at it that way. It is just a short-term problem. If we look beyond the enxt couple of elections, we can see that...

RK, lovecharm: Will do my best :-)

The Minking Than said...

Amrutha,
I just posted an article related to the recent energy crisis in my blog. I blogged on a simple solution to the global energy crisis.
Anoop

nishanth nair said...

nice post yaar..

expecting more posts like this...