Tuesday, June 05, 2007

India's Reprocessing Activities and Power needs

There was a request for a clarification on India's interests in these matters, I am attempting an answer, this is by no means complete but rather a first pass.

India has pursued reprocessing as part of its three stage closed fuel cycle program. The original conception of this program suggested that spent fuel rods containing Reactor grade Plutonium would be reprocessed. The separated Plutonium would then be burned along with Thorium in a fast breeder reactor. The spent fuel rods from the fast breeder would be reprocessed to recover Uranium-233, which in turn would be burnt with more Thorium in another breeder reactor. The spent fuel from this breeder reactor would be reprocessed to extract more Uranium-233 which would be fed back into the chain. This idea has undergone several evolutions as India's material scientists, engineers and physicists have taken a deeper look at issues. To date we can find no reason why this is unfeasible. Though conceptualised in the early 50s, this three stage closed loop fuel cycle even today is still far ahead of its time. In fact it represents the only efficient resource utilisation idea that is even discussed in the industry today.

In addition to this, India has demonstrated the ability to carry out a small amount of reprocessing aimed at producing plutonium for its weapons. India does not currently make weapons from reprocessing imported fuel. At the present time, India's nuclear arsenal is maintained at levels commensurate with the needs of a credible minimum deterrent. The nature of the deterrent may evolve to keep with the international climate but at the current stage India has no intention to reprocess spent fuel into weapons.

To be absolutely clear, if current pattern of electricity consumption is used to project electricity usage into the future, then even with the three stage cycle Indian reactors will produce only about 20-25% of the country's energy needs. This may appear as an argument against nuclear power, but it isn't. The key point here is that a serious pursuit of the nuclear option reduces India's reliance on carbon fuels, and even more importantly keeps India's high technology sector alive and kicking!

Today electricity usage is highly inefficient. The distribution grids are hopelessly lossly and average home appliances which consume a substantial amount of electricity are ridiculously inefficient. Barring heating and airconditioning, a majority of residential electricity consumption can run off a low voltage, low current line. If there is a shift towards the use of low voltage, low current appliances, it is very plausible that domestic electricity consumption will decline precipitously. Very preliminary tests run in developed countries show that it is possible to reduce the amount of electric power consumed by factors of three or so. Assuming the residential demand accounts for about 50% of the projected demand, a reduction in that demand by a factor of three will make it possible to significantly decrease India's utilisation of carbon fuels.

Capping the utilisation of carbon fuels at the present level will permit us to put into place a number of carbon emission control measures and limit the possibility of global warming. Additionally the demand for low power grids will enable the fuller utilisation of other renewable sources of energy. As you all know renewable sources like wind or solar power or even biogas have limited generation capacity, it is very difficult to build plants that produce in excess of a few megawatts of power and production is intermittent. However if you only consume a few watts per house, then a power source like this could easily be used to supply a neighbourhood on a small local grid. This would allow us to stay away from the expensive and lossy high power grids currently in use. A concurrent shift in the pattern of energy utilisation in the transportation sector is not entirely out of the realm of possibility, hybrid technology demonstrates that it is possible to design something that has a far smaller carbon footprint.

There is another imperative towards reduction of carbon fuels usage. Today the bulk of India's population relies on coal and firewood for energy. Without these in most places there would be no way to cook food. The search of coal and firewood takes up a large portion of a day for India's poor and yes there are well over 250 million of them! Little children leave school and go looking for firewood instead! The ecological and human cost of this relatively disorganised exploitation of forests and minerals is staggering! We simply have to provide alternatives to avoid an ecological catastrophe.

In order to achieve any of these reductions in carbon fuel utilisation or even to provide alternative means of energy generation, India will need a very active high technology development sector. That in sum, is what the game is all about. Can we make this nuclear deal in such a way that it does not cripple out ability to carry out the research we want? Ofcourse foreign interests will always want us to be subservient to their economic desires, but that doesn't mean we flop over on our backs and let them have their way.. does it?

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