Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. India’s bid for NSG membership is being blocked by China which wants India to first sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty

The global energy crisis should spur a rational relook at a clean source needlessly seen as a hot potato

For the last one month, the world has been dealing with a power and energy crisis. While the factors that caused this emergency are complex and differ somewhat from country to country, the upshot has been a clamour to reduce dependence on fossil fuels—coal, petrol, natural gas—further and increase production of renewable energy—mainly solar and wind. Obviously, every sane person would support a move away from fossil fuels, but the current green energy paradigm needs some serious examination.

Solar and wind energy are, by definition, intermittent and unstable. If the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow, you cannot produce the power. And since even in the very best conditions, solar and wind farms do not—can never—generate power round the clock, they require fossil-fuel back-up. This will not change till we develop very-large-scale cost-effective technology to store the power they produce.

Take Britain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a wind energy enthusiast and says he wants the UK to become the “Saudi Arabia of wind power" with wind farms generating enough electricity to meet the needs of every UK home within a decade. Today, 24% of Britain’s power comes from wind. But the country saw an unexpected “windless summer" this year, which is one of the reasons for the UK power crisis.

Among EU nations, Germany has been the most aggressive in pursuing a renewable energy future. Under its Energiewende (energy transition) plan, begun in 2010, it has been shutting down its coal-fired and nuclear power stations. Today, 30% of its power comes from wind and sunlight. But last month, faced with a coal and natural gas crunch, it woke up to the reality that after investing half a trillion dollars on the plan, it does not have the capacity to bottle up enough weather-dependent clean power to hold out even for a few fossil-fuel-free hours.

Meanwhile, Germany’s household-sector electricity price is the highest in the EU: $0.37 per kilowatt-hour (KwH). In France, it’s $0.19. In 2019, Germany emitted 350 grams of carbon dioxide for every KwH generated. France emitted 56 grams, six times less. Power in France is much cheaper and cleaner.

The reason is simple. Nuclear power. In 2020, nuclear power made up 78% of the energy France generated, and renewables 19%. Fossil fuels accounted for only 3%.

But the trouble is, every time the word “nuclear" is uttered, it gets a negative—and often hysterical—response rather than a reasoned fact-based one. Images of mushroom clouds over Hiroshima are immediately evoked. Whereas, nuclear power may be the cheapest, greenest and safest source of energy currently known to man.

France and other countries like Sweden and Bulgaria, which have a high nuclear component in their power generation, prove the cheap part. What about green? Nuclear power is zero-emission. It has no greenhouse gases or air pollutants. And, according to US government data, a typical 1,000-megawatt wind farm requires 360 times more land than a similar-capacity nuclear facility, and solar plants 75 times more. Apart from the ecological damage that wind and solar projects can cause to the relatively pristine areas where they are set up, it is conservatively estimated that 500,000 birds are being killed every year by collision with wind turbines in the US. This number can only rise.

Today, we are fully aware of radiation exposure risks and have reliable and safe ways to dispose of nuclear waste. And, because of its extreme density, it needs little space. All the waste produced by the US nuclear industry over 60 years can theoretically fit into a seven-metre-high stack of containers on a soccer field. And it would be even less if the US recycled the waste to produce more power, as France does. Coal plants spew out that volume of waste every hour.

We must make the right choices between various low-carbon technologies, all of which have some social and environmental impact. California, the most ‘progressive’ state in the US, is a fascinating case study.

California has been shutting down nuclear plants and aims to be nuclear-free by 2025. One of the consequences has been rising emissions due to more dependence on natural gas. After all, when you replace nuclear with solar and wind, you need more fossil fuel for back-up. And while the price of electricity has stayed flat for the rest of the US over the last 10 years, in California it has risen more than 60%. The state seems headed into a clean energy trap of its own making.

The boldest decision that Dr Manmohan Singh took in his 10 years as prime minister was to sign the Indo-US nuclear deal. But, perhaps due to the usual protests and short-term political thinking, not much seems to have happened since then—only 3% of the power India generates is nuclear. Last month, the government announced that India would triple its nuclear power capacity in the next 10 years. This should not be a target that is quietly forgotten as soon as it is set.

India imports much of the uranium it uses, which is both expensive and geopolitically tricky. But it has immense reserves of thorium. Clearly, we should invest ambitiously in projects that convert thorium to fissile uranium and produce power. That we have not already done so seems strange. But then, much of the politics around nuclear energy, both global and local, has been strange and illogical.