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NUCLEAR ENERGY NEEDS AND PROLIFERATION MISCONCEPTIONS


Paper No. 231       20.04.2001

 

by R. Chidambaram

(This is the keynote speech given at the International Symposium organised by Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Tokyo, 7-8 March, 2001. Reproduced with his permission)

Introduction

Per capita electricity consumption is an important measure of development in a developing country (Chidambaram, 1993).  It is obviously related to per capita Gross National Product, but it also correlates strongly with Life Expectancy in developing countries, as can be seen from the central portion of Figure1.  Per Capita GNP and Life Expectancy are two of the three main parameters used by the U.N. in defining the Human Development Index. While there are differences due to ethnic and national factors, there is a definite trend of increasing life expectancy from an increasing per capita electricity consumption. If any electricity producing system is introduced in a developing country, a good part of the electricity produced will be used up by the industry and services sectors and a part will go for urban consumption but a part will also go to fulfill the needs of small towns and villages, which will get better health care and other amenities and this has an impact on all health parameters including life expectancy which is the ultimate health parameter. If the developing countries of Asia want to aim for a quality of life comparable to that in the already-developed countries, their electricity production must go up substantially. 

Fuel Resources

Now, one can look at possible energy sources.  Fossil fuels are likely to run out sooner or later.  India, for example, has a couple of hundred billion tons of coal located mostly in the eastern part of the country and, for the next two or three decades, most of its power sector growth will indeed have to come from coal-based thermal plants.  But, after that, like the rest of the world, India will also begin to think of conserving fossil fuel sources for carbon-based industries of the more distant future.  Hydroelectric systems use a renewable resource and, in addition to electricity, provide water for irrigation but inevitably they displace people and have also been criticised for disturbance of ecology.  Solar, wind, biomass and other renewable sources are very important, but, at the present time, are not competitive, except in remote areas, with hydroelectric, fossil fuel-based thermal or nuclear power.  It is in this context that one must see the increasingly important role that nuclear energy is likely to play in satisfying the future energy needs of the world (including India).  In some countries, which have no significant indigenous fossil fuel sources, nuclear power is seen as providing energy security.

The Carbon-Di-Oxide Emissions Problem

The effect on climate change by greenhouse gas emissions has been a matter of scientific debate for many years.  In the recent (October 2000) COP6 Climate Change Conference at the Hague, the Chairman of the UN's Inter-Governmental panel on Climate Change Robert Watson announced new estimates of likely increases in global surface temperatures over the next 100 years (NUCNET, 14 November 2000).  He said that, according to revised scientific models, temperatures are now predicted to rise by between 1.5 and 6 degrees Celsius, compared with an original projected range of  1 to 3.5 degree Celsius.  Even at the lower limits, such changes in global climate could have alarming consequences.  Though the issue of atmospheric CO2 emissions as the principal driver of climate variability has been recently contested by Jan Veizer et al (2000), by interpreting the 18-0/16-0 oxygen isotope ratio variation in marine fossils (there is some doubt about the validity of their proxy CO2 concentration estimations), the general consensus among scientists studying climate change makes out a strong case for reducing fossil-fuel emissions by developed countries.  The contribution of nuclear energy in reducing CO2 emissions in the past, and possibly in the future, if a rational attitude to this clean energy source is adopted, has to be recognised.

Proliferation Misconception

John Ritch III (1999), the former U.S. Ambassador in Vienna and the present Secretary-General of the Uranium Institute in London has said: "The fear of nuclear proliferation is simply misplaced in the global warming debate.  Most current carbon consumption in countries which already have nuclear weapons or which can be relied upon as good faith parties to the NPT.  And the largest growth markets in energy consumption are China and India, both of which already have weapons capabilities.  In short, almost everywhere the reduction in carbon emissions could yield important benefits for climate protection, proliferation is not even an issue."

The "full scope safeguards" system   is specific to the NNWS and is implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. In its presently strengthened form, IAEA's verification activities seek credible assurance not only of non-diversion of declared nuclear material for weapons’ purposes but also of the absence of undeclared nuclear activities (Obviously, therefore, other Treaties like CTBT and FMCT are basically irrelevant to NNWS). The NWS, as designated by the NPT, accept "voluntary safeguards" on a few of their civilian facilities. For other countries, the safeguards are specific to nuclear materials in the facilities established through international cooperation and to imported nuclear materials.  In the case of India, we have such "facility safeguards" agreements with IAEA for the reactors at Tarapur (TAPS 1 and 2), Rajasthan (RAPS 1 & 2) and we will have them for the two VVER-1000 reactors being setup in Kundankulum. Any reasonable world nuclear order can only expect countries to fulfill their international safeguards commitment and no more than that.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines, however, make demands beyond genuine proliferation concerns and are obviously coercive in intent and are slowing down the expansion of nuclear power capacity in the world. In the case of India, given its large nuclear market, the present NSG guidelines, which asks for "full-scope" safeguards as a pre-condition for international cooperation in reactor construction, also have negative consequences for the commercial interests of potential supplier countries.

NPT is only one of many Treaties and Agreements in the world. It is a Treaty to which many countries have become signatories voluntarily as Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) in the hope of achieving global nuclear disarmament. Many others joined NPT, as NNWS, convinced that their security concerns will be addressed by one or another State with Nuclear Weapons, and that they will be sheltered under the so-called ‘Nuclear Umbrella". The Treaty left the security concerns of India unaddressed. India exercised self-restraint for a long time but had to finally weaponise in the context of a sharply deteriorating security environment in its neighbourhood. Clearly the only long-term solution of the problem is to eliminate all nuclear weapons - meaning, universal nuclear disarmament. Any lesser solution must still take into account the genuine security concerns of all nations.

The NPT is an "inherently unfair" Treaty, as stated in the writeup for Session I. It has an arbitrary cut-off date of January 1967, for the carrying out of a nuclear explosive test, for designation as a NWS. This is equivalent to saying: "You may have a postgraduate degree, but if you got it after 1 January 1967, you will still be presumed to be uneducated!" After the May 1998 nuclear tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee has declared that India is a Nuclear Weapon State and that it will maintain a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. In the article by Paine and Mckinzie(1999), which discusses, among other things, sharing of nuclear weapons knowledge in the world , it is clearly evident that India’s nuclear weapon programme is based on self reliance. India also exercises excellent physical protection on materials and strict export controls so that no equipment, materials or technology from India has ever been misused. One of my western friends once told me that India is considered by them "a classical non-proliferator." This springs from the Indian culture and ethos, the demands of its modern democratic set up and its interest in a stable world order. Incidentally, these characteristics of us (even if I be so immodest as to say so) - and not just our size - that makes us such a credible candidate for the permanent membership of the UN Security Council and also makes us a useful partner in any endeavour to strengthen peace and stability in the world.

Today, in my opinion, Proliferation has a special connotation in the context of countries which try to possess a nuclear weapon capability through clandestine acquisition of weapon design, weapon related technology, materials and equipment and of countries which clandestinely help them in violation of their international commitments. Such nuclear weapon capability, though not likely to be sustainable over a period of time in the absence of self-reliant materials development, equipment servicing and ageing management capabilities, could also lead to further illicit trafficking, a matter of great international concern.

Asian Nuclear Power Expansion

While one hears a great deal about the flattening out of the nuclear power growth in the United States and Western Europe, this is not a global phenomenon.  This is seen from Figure 2, which plots the growth of the number of operating nuclear power reactors in the world, regionwise (Mourogov, 1998).  While there is a slowdown in growth in North America and Western Europe - driven, I think, by the fact that their levels of energy consumption are already very high, and, therefore, there is no significant demand for more energy and they are also now conscious about the need for energy conservation - the number of reactors in Asia is continuously growing.  Nuclear power grows where there is an energy need and also the necessary industrial and scientific infrastructure to support this high technology.  Asia (including India) always had the energy need but the requisite infrastructure is growing only in recent years - of course, Japan is an exception.

In a meeting in Seoul, organised in 1997 by the Atlantic Council of USA and in which I participated, the Asian commitment to nuclear power was identified as being motivated by the following considerations: nuclear power seen as an important option to satisfy rapidly growing energy needs, energy security, non-uniform geographical location of coal and its future exhaustion, air quality improvement and greenhouse gas benefits, technological spin-offs of high technology and, in general, a supportive public environment (see Balzhiser et al, 1997).

The Indian Nuclear Programme

In five decades of development, India has created a wide ranging multi-disciplinary and self-reliant infrastructure in nuclear science and technology. Initiated with Canadian collaboration, our own developments in a Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor(PHWR) technology over three decades have been so extensive that our PHWRs were referred to in a recent IAEA document as INDU, rather than CANDU! Almost all the equipment and component of PHWRs - both 220MWe and 500MWe - are manufactured by Indian companies. The 14 reactors operating in India are currently running at an average capacity factor of over 82 percent. Of these, 4 were commissioned over a fourteen - month period during 1999-2000. For the last reactor in Rajasthan, the period between first criticality and synchronisation to the grid was just fourteen days. We are able to undertake major plant life extension jobs like en-masse coolant channel replacement. Our track record in safety is excellent, with 160 safe reactor years of operation. Thus the PHWR technology in India has matured and has, in fact, enabled us to develop the next generation Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (Kakodkar, Sinha and Dhawan, 1999). The rapidly developing industrial infrastructure in India synergises effectively with this nuclear capability.

We believe that the once-through open nuclear fuel cycle, with spent fuel treated as nuclear waste, cannot sustain nuclear power development over the long term and that closing the nuclear fuel cycle is important. This must be done by using Mox fuel in conventional reactors, Plutonium and Uranium-233 - based fuels and Thorium blankets in Advanced heavy Water Reactors (AHWRs) and in Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), and by finally going over to a Thorium-Uranium 233 cycle. All this would, of course, require tremendous R&D efforts in the future. The planning of reprocessing capacity must be such that it facilitates the utilisation of plutonium and thorium and reduces the input of natural uranium (in the process realising the much higher energy potential of uranium). The fuel needs must be met on "just in time" reprocessing basis, which is important both from materials management and from radiation safety consideration (Chidambaram, 1999).

From the current modest nuclear installed capacity of a little under 3000 MWe, India plans to go to 20,000 MWe by the year 2020 which will provide us a platform for future growth. This will be from a mix (see Figure 3) of mostly PHWRs and some FBRs, based on indigenous technology, and the remaining based on Advanced Light Water Reactor technology. For the latter, we plan to start with two VVER-1000 reactors of advanced design, to be built with Russian technical cooperation, for which a Detailed Project Report is being prepared. This is only the beginning.

The Need For International Cooperation

The flattening out of nuclear power growth in the western developed countries I referred to earlier - there are signs of a possible reversal of this trend in the last couple of years - has the natural consequence of stagnation of R&D efforts and of a reluctance of young people to take up careers in this field.  As the famous biologist Peter Medawar (1979) has said, young students will be attracted to research in the field only if they think they would be working on "important" problems.  Grimston and Beck (2000) from the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London say : "Spending on longer-term (nuclear) energy R&D has been falling in almost all developed countries, with the exception of Japan, over the last decade or so.  Liberalisation of electricity supply markets has been accompanied, on the one hand by governments taking the view that R&D is now the responsibility of commercial companies, to be carried out on commercial grounds, and on the other by a growing unwillingness of private power utilities to spend shareholder' money on speculative R&D projects."  This is not a happy situation because knowledge, when stifled, atrophies and the world's nuclear heritage is too precious a resource to be allowed to dissipate.  Fortunately this is not happening in Asia.

The Nuclear R&D should be directed towards developing Advanced Reactor Systems, which could be of evolutionary design with improvements in existing plant designs or of developmental design based on existing design philosophies but incorporating significant departures (like the Indian Advanced Heavy Water Reactor) or of completely innovative design incorporating radical changes to existing design.  IAEA has an important role to play in developing a strategic plan for an international R&D project on Innovative Nuclear Fuel Cycles and Power Plants.  The Advanced Reactor design must have fault tolerance and enhanced level of safety, including passive safety, so that they can be introduced widely and economically, even in the small and medium size ranges, in developing countries initiating a nuclear power programme, whether in Asia or outside, even though the existing modern nuclear reactor designs and the current strategies for nuclear waste management are, I think, technically satisfactory from a safety point of view.

Nuclear R&D areas that need to be looked into are not restricted to Advanced Reactor Systems but include Advanced materials - both fuel and structural; Non-destructive Testing, In-service inspection and Plant Life Extension; Accelerator-based Systems both as an energy amplifier and for nuclear waste transmutation; Environmental Safety-related technologies; Fusion-Fission Hybrid Reactors; etc.

India has always placed great emphasis on human resource development in nuclear science and engineering. The major source of the scientific and engineering manpower in the Indian Department of Atomic Energy, for more than four decades now, is a one-year Orientation Course for fresh graduates (in engineering) and post-graduate (in Science) in all major disciplines related to nuclear technology: physics, chemistry, biology, environmental science, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, electronics, computers etc. We shall be happy to accept scientists and engineers from developing countries in Asia (and elsewhere) in this course, either through a bilateral arrangement or through the IAEA. It is worth recalling that the Regional Cooperation Agreement (RCA) of IAEA, now catalysing successfully cooperation among countries of this region in peaceful uses of atomic energy, had its origin as the India-Philippines-IAEA (IPA) Project in the sixties.

In conclusion, I would like to say that we must seek a nuclear world order where, while moving towards global nuclear disarmament and taking care of genuine proliferation concerns, the growth of safe nuclear power is accelerated and the world’s nuclear heritage is preserved. And this would be in the interest of all concerned countries, inside and outside Asia.

References:

1. Balzhiser, R. Christian Gobert, Kun Mo Chung, H. W. Paige, D. L. Guertin, W.J. Dircks & Joyce C. Dunkerley, "An Appropriate Role for nuclear Energy in Asia's Power Sector", Policy Paper, The Atlantic Council of the USA Washington D.C., December 1997

2. R. Chidambaram, Convocation Address entitled "Education and National Development", Madras University (1993); also article entitled "Measures of Development", The Sunday Times of India, 12 September, 1993.

3. R. Chidambaram, Statement in the September 1999 IAEA General Conference, Excerpts in CURRENT SCIENCE (India), Vol. 77, No. 9, 10 November 1999; also Chidambaram, R and Ganguly, C., "Plutonium and Thorium in the Indian Nuclear Programme", CURRENT SCIENCE (India) Vol. 70, No. 1,January 1996.

4. R. Chidambaram and R.K. Sinha, Business Times, Washington D.C., Vol. XVIII No.3, Sept. 2000,p. 29-30.

5. Grimston, M.C. and Beck, P., Private Communication(2000).

6. John Ritch III, "Nuclear Green", Perspectives on Science, diplomacy & Atoms for Peace", IAEA Bulletin, Vol. 41, no.2 June 1999.

7. Medawar, P.B. (ed.). "Advice to a young Scientists", Harper & Raw, New York 1979.

8. V. Mourogov, deputy Director General, IAEA (1998); See also the article "the Need for innovative nuclear reactor and fuel cycle systems", Nuclear Energy, Vol. 39, No. 6, Dec. 2000, pp.339-345

9. NUCNET, "Leading Climate Change Scientists Addresses Nuclear Option", News No. 3732/00/A, 14 November 2000.

10. Paine Christopher and M. G. Mckinzie, "Does the US Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship Program Pose a Proliferation Threat?", Science and Global Security, 1998, Vol. 7, pp. 151-193.

11. A. Kakodkar, R.K. Sinha and M.L. Dhawan, "General Description of Advanced Heavy Water Reactor", Evolutionary Water Cooled Reactors: Strategic Issues,Technologies and Economic Viability, IAEA, TECDOC 1117, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, December 1999.

12. Jan Veizer et al, nature, 7 Dec. 2000, Vol.408. pp 698-701

Figure 1. Correlation of Life Expectancy with Per Capita Electricity Consumption

Figure 2. Regionwise Nuclear Power Growth in the World

Figure 3. Indian Nuclear Power Projection for the year 2020

(The writer is DAE-Homi Bhabha Chair Professor in Bhabha  Atomic Research Centre,  and Former Chairman, Atomic Energy Comission Of India)  

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