The story of nuclear power in India began in September 1972, when the then Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi visited the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the project to manufacture and test a nuclear bomb was given a confirmation. Following this approval, the scientists started working on converting their ideas into reality. Apart from designing, minds were also pondering over locating and preparing an appropriate test site for the project, which was commonly called ‘Smiling Buddha’. Almost two years later, the device was ready to be tested. The assembly of the device in Pokhran, the test area, began on May 13, 1974, and was completed three days later, to be tested on May 18, 1974. At 8:05 am on May 18, 1974, the button for the first nuclear test in India was pushed by Pranab Rebatiranjan Dastidar, the team leader of the Electronic Detonation System team for the project. The 47-meter crater created by the first successful nuclear test in Pokhran marked the genesis of the nuclear age in India (Nuclear Weapon Archive, 2001).
Over four decades later, India stands at number seven in the list of countries with most nuclear reactors, with 22. Leading the charge is the United States of America with 99 reactors, followed by France with 58, Japan with 42, China with 39, Russia with 37 and Republic of Korea with 24. Other countries with nuclear reactors include Canada, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Sweden and Belgium which follow India in the rankings (IAEA, 2018). The current pool of reactors in India has a combined capacity of 6,780 MW. In May 2017, the current government of India cleared the proposal to build ten heavy water nuclear reactors which will have a capacity of 7,000 MW, boosting the nuclear power capacity of the country. Former Power Minister Piyush Goyal stated in the media briefing: “We already have 6,780 MW of operational nuclear power plants and about 6,700 MW of plants under implementation, which will be set up by 2021-22”. The ten new plants will provide an additional boost to the nuclear power sector in India, although, there are no timelines provided for the projects as of now (Hindu, 2017).
As the energy demands rise up excessively, it is important to understand the need for energy security in India and the world. The term energy security holds no ideal definition but it is a collection of classifications which can change depending on the society level one holds. At the foundation level, energy security can be defined as an access to a necessary amount of energy at reasonable prices. Glancing at energy security from the outlook of a government, energy security can imply policies and measures which may be implemented if the supply breaks down; at the same time, the cost should be rational for its citizens. For the underprivileged population, energy security has a different meaning altogether; as a basic supply of energy can help ensure quality education for girls, improve healthcare facilities and much more.
The 2016 ‘International Index of Energy Security Risk’ report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce analyses 25 large ‘Energy Using Countries’ on the basis of their energy sources, energy demands and energy consumption to carve out a risk score for their energy security for the year 2014. Norway takes the top spot as the most energy secure country in the world, followed by Mexico, New Zealand and the United States. India, on the other hand, holds the 19th rank, with a risk score of 1,186, 36 per cent more than the average score of 869, set by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The countries below India are Russia, China, South Korea, Brazil, Thailand and Ukraine (Global Energy Institute, 2014).
India has seen a fair share of failures in energy deficit with prolonged power cuts and un-electrified and under-electrified villages, which are yet to see a substantial amount of light. The current BJP led government claimed that as of May 2017, in two years of the identification of over 18,000 villages for electrification, they had electrified over 13,000 villages. The story, however, is a bit different. Out of the 13,523 villages that were electrified by the current government, only 1,089 villages attained 100 per cent household connectivity. According to the parameters used by the Power Ministry since 1997, a village can be considered electrified if at least 10 per cent of households in the village are electrified, along with schools, health centres and more. Simply, if even 89 per cent of the households in a village remain un-electrified, the village will still be considered electrified. This puts some serious holes in the claims of the current and the previous governments in electrification (Patil, 2017).
The demand-supply statistics also hold a story, which cannot be deciphered. As per the records of Power Ministry of India, the energy demand in the country reached 1,142,929 million units, while the supply reached 1,135,334 million units, showing a supply-demand gap of only 0.7 per cent. This gap, however, was 10.1 per cent in 2009-10. The electricity generation rate in India has seen quite a few ups and down in the past few years, where the generation growth was 8.43 per cent in 2014-15, 5.64 per cent in 2015-16 and 4.72 per cent in 2016-17 (MoP, 2018). While millions of people in the country live without electricity in their homes, how can the country’s supply be just 0.7 per cent less than its demand?
Questions like these need to be answered soon as India is about to witness mammoth growth rates in electricity consumption in the coming years, highest among major economies of the world. The consumption is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.2 per cent till 2035, which will take the 2035 energy consumption of India to 129 per cent of the subsequent number in 2015 (Economic Times, 2017). As of 2017, India generated 58.3 per cent of its energy from coal and 13.6 per cent from hydro power plants. Nuclear energy supplied a mere 2 per cent of the total energy generated. While the Renewable Energy Sources (apart from hydro) provide a good 18 per cent of the energy, it is far from what is required in the coming time (MoP, 2018).
Countries such as France, Belgium, Hungary, Slovak Republic and Ukraine have used nuclear power effectively and meet almost half of their energy needs through nuclear sources. In 2017, France generated 379,100 GWh of energy from its nuclear power plants, which roughly amounts to 72 per cent of its total energy generated. On the other hand, India generated twice the amount of power in 2017, but only 34,853 GWh was generated from nuclear power reactors (IAEA, 2018). To meet its rising energy demands, India has to turn its attention to nuclear power soon. With new nuclear projects coming up, it is important to speed up the process of the current projects which are under construction.
Nuclear power can help India attain the goal of energy security sooner than other generation methods. Even though there are alternative routes, the increasing demand and population put a clock on the options we have. In a timed scenario, nuclear power is the best chance India has to reach close to energy security, if not attain it. While there are many anti-nuclear elements in the country, it is important to understand that nuclear energy is far more than just bombs and missiles.