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Cost uncertainties of nuclear plants
December, 28th 2006
Controversies about nuclear vs. coal-fired technology aside, the more pertinent issue is comparative costs between the two, especially the hidden future costs.

NUCLEAR REACTORS being built at Koodankulam, Tirunelveli... - A. Shaikmohideen

The nuclear option in energy planning is never dormant in India. Globally, the debate got a fresh impetus when James Lovelock, proponent of the Gaia hypothesis the Earth keeping itself fit for life in early 2006 recommended nuclear energy to counter huge emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon-dioxide from coal-fired plants, and automobile exhaust.

The UPA Government's decision to set up five nuclear plants with a total capacity of 3000 MWe in the coastal areas of West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra is a derivative of the India-US nuclear agreement. Mr Steve Kidd, Head of Strategy and Research at the World Nuclear Association in the US and a strong defender of President George Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), made no bones of American interest in promoting nuclear power. The GNEP is "centred on the apparent change in the US strategy towards reprocessing used fuel, rather than continuing on the march towards repositories." In other words, the US concern is the repository of reprocessed uranium on the dismantling of nuclear weapons.

The idea of nuclear power brings out every kind of opposition, but its proponents argue that the contamination by coal-fired plants is understated while those of nuclear power units is exaggerated. Almost every radioactive mineral or compound is emitted into the atmosphere by thermal plants, states a well-known academician of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. However, no International Atomic Energy Agency document endorses this view.

Controversies about nuclear versus coal-fired technology aside, the more mundane issue is comparative costs between nuclear and thermal power plants, especially the hidden future costs. This is a very difficult task, especially as the nuclear establishment is quite off-limits. This is why a multi-disciplinary endeavour a social cost-benefit analysis involving not only chartered and cost accountants but energy economists and technologists is indispensable.

Economics of Nuclear plants

Economics of nuclear plants is not strong enough despite the accusation that coal-based power plants are smokestacks that "belch millions of tonnes of carbon-dioxide, the main global warming gas". Energy Report, Which Energy? by the Institute of Science in Society bluntly states that nuclear energy is "extremely uneconomical." Referring to the British experience, the document warns, "Reprocessing spent fuel is no easier.

In June 2005, a leak of highly radioactive waste was discovered in the reprocessing plant at Sellafield containing enough uranium and plutonium to make several atomic weapons; and had gone unnoticed for more than eight months" which leads to "an exponential increase in the volume of hazardous radioactive wastes."

In the US context, the November 30 Fitch report on nuclear credit deserves mention. The ownership and operation of nuclear power plants can have a significant effect on the risk profile and credit ratings. True, "nuclear ownership can accrue benefits, including low and stable production costs and low carbon emissions, the high cost of construction and the potentially severe financial effect of an extended outage warrant a careful inspection of a company's financial flexibility, liquidity resources and nuclear operating performance. Yet, credit concerns relate basically to operating and regulatory risks, rather than construction and financing risks."

Fitch Senior Director, Mr Robert Hornick, points out, "The potential for an extended unplanned outage is the primary credit risk of nuclear ownership." A paper, High Costs, Questionable Benefits of Reprocessing by Ms J. Y. Suchitra and Mr M. V. Ramana (Economic and Political Weekly, November 25) worked out a major breakdown of reprocessing costs, of Tarapur, Trombay and Kalapakkam, based on 2004, taking the average output of 25 per cent capacity: Construction cost Rs 558.2 crore; construction of waste immobilisation plant Rs 164.25 crore; capital cost Rs 135.46 crore and decommissioning Rs 412 crore.

There are various hidden costs, pertaining to environment, not estimated till date. There are radioactive tailings whose damage potential is enormous as they carry carcinogens for at least 100 years.

But if one gives audience to the other side, and assumes that high-grade uranium will be available at affordable prices and readily, then the risk element comes to the fore and the risk and uncertainty analysis, thereof, is very cumbersome as shadow-pricing becomes complicated. Mr Robert N. Stavins, Director of the Environmental Economics programme at Harvard University, thinks that "both the short-term gains through efficiency and the longer-term gains from investments in research and switching to cleaner fuels" are main pricing or cost considerations.

Sankar Ray
(The author is a Kolkata-based freelance writer.)

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