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Nuclear Energy: A Clean Power Source

  • Context (IE): Brussels hosted a first-of-its-kind Nuclear Energy Summit that was billed as the most high-profile international meeting on nuclear energy ever.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) called it a “landmark” and a “turning point” in the efforts to expand the use of nuclear energy to generate clean electricity.
  • The meeting was an attempt to build momentum for a greater acceptance of nuclear energy which many countries continue to have apprehensions about.
    • Such apprehensions were aggravated by the Fukushima accident in 2011.
    • The continuing crisis at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the first nuclear facility to have been caught in a dangerous armed conflict, has also been a source of grave concern.

Nuclear Energy

  • It is the second largest source of low-carbon electricity production globally (after hydropower) and provided about 30% of all low-carbon electricity generated in 2019.
  • Nuclear power accounted for 9.8% of total electricity production in 2021, a decrease of 0.4 percentage points from the previous year.
  • The share of nuclear grew rapidly from 1980 to 1990, almost doubling, but has declined since 2000.

Share of Nuclear Energy in Global Electricity Generation - PMF IAS

Benefits of Nuclear Energy

  • Clean source of energy with a minimal carbon footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions are only in the range of 5 to 6 grams per kilowatt hour. This is 100 times lower than coal-fired electricity and about half the average of solar and wind generation.
  • Perennial availability: Unlike renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, nuclear power is not dependent on weather conditions and can provide a stable electricity supply regardless of external factors.
  • Nuclear power generation results in avoiding emissions of more than 1 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year. In the last five decades, this has resulted in a cumulative avoidance of about 70 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
  • Environmental benefits: Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power emits no fine particles, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrates or phosphates into the atmosphere.

Challenges associated with adoption of nuclear energy

Nuclear Waste

  • Radioactive waste management is challenging due to extended half-lives and high-level waste generated by nuclear power plants.
  • Further, there are no long-term storage solutions for radioactive waste, and most are stored in temporary, above-ground facilities.
  • These facilities are running out of storage space, so the nuclear industry is turning to other types of storage that are more costly and potentially less safe.

Costlier source

  • Nuclear reactors require high investments and a technology base, take years to build, and operate under a variety of regulations and constraints, making them unattractive for countries wanting to ramp up their electricity generation quickly and affordably.
  • Initial capital costs, fuel, and maintenance costs are much higher for nuclear plants than wind and solar, and nuclear projects tend to suffer cost overruns and construction delays.

Longer life of nuclear reactors

  • The average life of operational nuclear reactors is more than 31 years, which highlights the fact that few new reactors have come on board in the last decade.
  • IAEA data shows that the number of operational nuclear reactors has actually decreased in the last twenty years, from 437 in 2003 to 411 now.

Explained: The push for nuclear energy as climate solution

Declining energy generation

  • Nuclear energy accounts for less than 10 per cent of global commercial electricity generation, and its share has been declining for almost three decades now.
  • The total installed electricity generation capacity has shown only a marginal increase from about 360 GW in 2003 to 371 GW now.

Global Nuclear Electricity Generation Capacity - PMF IAS

Accidents

  • The 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine led to the deaths of 30 employees in the initial explosion.
  • A massive tsunami bypassed the safety mechanisms of several power plants in 2011, causing three nuclear meltdowns at a power plant in Fukushima, Japan, resulting in the release of radioactive materials into the surrounding area.

Cancer risk

  • Studies show an increased risk of cancer for those who reside near a nuclear power plant, especially for childhood cancers such as leukaemia.
  • Workers in the nuclear industry are also exposed to higher-than-normal levels of radiation and, as a result, are at a higher risk of death from cancer.

Steps taken at the global level to expand nuclear energy

  • The IAEA has launched an ‘Atoms4Climate’ initiative and has begun an engagement with the climate community, especially at the COPs or the annual year-ending climate conferences.
  • At COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, IAEA set up a pavilion for the first time.
  • At COP28 in Dubai, about 20 countries pledged to work towards tripling global nuclear energy installed capacity by 2050.

India’s position on nuclear energy

India's Nuclear Power Plants - PMF IAS

  • India currently has 23 operational nuclear reactors.
  • The currently operational reactors have a combined installed electricity generating capacity of 7,480 MW (about 7.5 GW).
  • At least ten more reactors are under construction, and the capacity is supposed to triple to 22,480 MW by 2031-32.
  • The share of nuclear energy in total electricity generation capacity is just about 3.1 per cent, among the lowest in countries that do use nuclear energy.
  • In April 2023, the government announced plans to increase nuclear capacity from 6780 MWe to 22,480 MWe by 2031, with nuclear accounting for nearly 9% of India’s electricity by 2047.

Challenges limiting the growth of Nuclear Power in India

  • Limited domestic uranium resources: India’s uranium resources are mostly low-grade and uneconomic to mine. Thus, they are insufficient to meet the demand for nuclear power plants.
  • Nuclear liability: India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (CLNDA) allows the operator of a nuclear plant to seek compensation from the supplier in case of an accident caused by defective equipment or services.
    • This provision has deterred many foreign suppliers from entering the Indian nuclear market, as they fear legal and financial risks.
  • Public Opposition due to safety concerns. This opposition has made it challenging for the government to build new nuclear power plants and expand existing ones.
  • Yellowcake: It is the refined form of uranium ore, a type of rock mined from the Earth’s crust. If processed, yellowcake becomes enriched uranium and can be used in the manufacture of nuclear fuel.
  • Fertile (of an isotope): It is capable of becoming fissile by capturing neutrons, possibly followed by radioactive decay, e.g., U-238, Pu-240.
  • Fissile (of an isotope): Capable of capturing a slow (thermal) neutron and undergoing nuclear fission, e.g. U-235, U-233, Pu-239.
  • Becquerel: The SI unit of intrinsic radioactivity in a material.
  • Heavy water: Heavy water is water that contains heavy hydrogen, also known as deuterium in place of regular hydrogen. It can also be written as 2H2O or D2O.
    • Deuterium: Heavy hydrogen, a stable isotope having one proton and one neutron in the nucleus. Hydrogen atoms contain one proton and no neutrons.
  • Light water: Ordinary water (H2O) as distinct from heavy water.
  • Closed fuel cycle approach: If spent fuel is reprocessed and partly reused, it is referred to as a closed nuclear fuel cycle. For example, in India, the useful Pu239 and U233 isotopes are separated from U238 and Th232.
    • Spent fuel: Used fuel assemblies removed from a reactor after several years of use and treated as waste. Often, it is another term for fuel that is used.
  • Criticality is the state of a nuclear reactor when enough neutrons are created by fission to make up for those lost by leakage or absorption so that the number of neutrons produced in fission remains constant. It is the condition of being able to sustain a nuclear chain reaction.
  • Reprocessing: Chemical treatment of used reactor fuel to separate uranium and plutonium and possibly transuranic elements from the small quantity of fission products.
  • Vitrification: This process converts liquid radioactive and chemical waste into solid, stable glass, eliminating environmental risks.
  • Core loading is the process of placing nuclear fuel assemblies inside the core of a nuclear reactor.
  • Uranium Enrichment:
    • When uranium is mined, it consists of approximately 99.3% uranium-238 (U238), 0.7% uranium-235 (U235), and < 0.01% uranium-234 (U234).
    • Only the U-235 isotope (0.7%) is fissionable. The remaining 99.3% is mostly the U-238 isotope, which does not contribute directly to the fission process.
    • However, it is possible to increase or enrich the percentage of U-235.
    • Methods used for Enrichment: The Gaseous Diffusion process, Gas centrifuge enrichment process and laser separation technology.
    • Low-enriched uranium (LEU): Uranium enriched to less than 20% U-235. (That in power reactors is usually 3.5 – 5.0% U-235.)
    • High-enriched uranium (HEU): Uranium enriched to 20% U-235 or more.
    • For nuclear weapons Uranium enriched to at least 90% U-235
  • Plutonium
    • Plutonium has occurred naturally, but except for trace quantities, it is not now found in the Earth’s crust.
    • Plutonium is formed in nuclear power reactors from uranium-238 by neutron capture and from dismantled nuclear weapons.
    • All plutonium isotopes are fissionable with fast neutrons, though only two are fissile (with slow neutrons). For this reason, all are significant in a fast neutron reactor (FNR), but only one – Pu-239 – has a major role in a conventional light-water power reactor.
    • Plutonium-238 is a vital power source for deep space missions.
  • Zirconium
    • It is a rare metal with amazing corrosion resistance, high melting point, high hardness, and strength.
    • It is widely used in aerospace, military, nuclear reaction, and atomic energy fields.
    • Zirconium alloys have a small thermal neutron capture cross-section and used in fission reactors.
  • Placer deposit
    • It is a natural concentration of heavier minerals created by the action of gravity on moving particles.
    • These concentrations are typically found along streams, rivers, beaches, and stretches of residual gravel where they are washed up.
    • Besides thorium (from monazite ore), gold, platinum, titanium, uranium, and rare earth elements are commercially mined from placer deposits.
    • Thorium reserves are found in coastal and inland placer sands on the beaches of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, and in the inland riverine sands of Jharkhand and West Bengal.

Other Facts

  • The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) aims to increase nuclear power’s share of the energy mix by 2032 by producing 22,400 MWe from its nuclear power plants.
  • Dr Vikram Sarabhai recognised the need to develop Fast Breeder Reactors, as these reactors generate more nuclear fuel than they consume.
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