An energy-independent India requires a nuclear revolution

With global energy markets roiled by the Russians invading Ukraine and turning off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, and now electricity to Finland, it’s time for every nation to rethink its dependence on foreign energy and its domestic production. 

While some countries are endowed with abundant fossil fuels such as the United States and Russia, many are not and must turn to a mix of emerging energy technologies to fuel their energy needs to insulate themselves from global catastrophes. The good news is we are in a golden era of emerging energy technologies that allow for multiple paths to energy independence and decarbonization of the environment.  

We think of India specifically, an energy-consuming giant that relies heavily on coal and imported Middle East fossil fuels for its energy needs. An energy-independent India will help India secure its future global ambitions by having to compete less with or be threatened by China for Middle East oil. Both India and China are building gas and oil pipelines and major ports in Iran and Pakistan. India’s energy supply is not only at risk from possible rogue actions in those two countries, but China can easily block or disrupt India’s energy flow in a future conflict, or as they vie for influence in the region. 

After China, India has the second-highest number of coal plants in the world at 281 — these are not “clean” coal plants — and even with this many India will not meet the energy demands required for the nation’s ambitious growth agenda. If India is to keep its climate pledge made at COP26 in Glasgow for net-zero emissions by 2070 by installing 500 gigawatts of non-fossil energy by 2030, they must produce massive amounts of domestic energy, and quick.  

Last summer, Elon Musk caused a stir in India by rightly tweeting about the outrageous import duties of up to 100 percent India imposes on foreign autos as the reason behind Tesla not yet entering the Indian market. This led to India’s national government going on the offensive against the world’s wealthiest man, while several state chief ministers publicly wooed Musk to build Teslas in their states and called on the national government to ease off on tariffs for electric vehicles to jumpstart the EV market there. 

Before Tesla builds Gigafactory Mumbai, it must ponder how India will provide the electricity to power its cars and the hundreds of millions of EVs someday made by domestic producers. More importantly, how will India continue to power the schools, hospitals and factories critical to lifting millions out of poverty and pollution? 

The current plan seems to focus on the rapid growth of renewables, mainly solar and wind. India is certainly blessed with their respective natural resources. However, the electricity grid was never designed for such fluctuating and intermittent generation. While storage over hours to weeks can potentially address this challenge, it is needed at the scale of terawatt-hours. It is noteworthy that long-duration storage has not been demonstrated anywhere in the world, especially at the needed costs of roughly $10-20 per kilowatt-hour. To complement the renewables, it is prudent to also focus on dispatchable carbon-free firm power. 

In the early 2000s, both President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administrations understood India’s future growth requires energy on a scale realizable only by nuclear. Their vision was one the world got behind, and in 2008 the global nuclear supplier’s group, which includes the United States, ratified treaties and changed U.S. law to make it possible for India to reprocess spent nuclear fuel for nuclear energy. 

Yet 14 years later, only one new nuclear reactor has come online, and that was the Kudankulam 1 in Tamil Nadu built by Russia. While building reactors takes years of planning and billions of dollars, India’s efforts have been hampered by cost overruns, red tape, technological glitches, land rights obstacles and unwarranted safety fears. Now the war with Ukraine is delaying the construction of reactors by the Russians. 

These obstacles are in no way unique to India. The United States’ existing fleet of reactors is in shambles and needs Build Back Better funds just to remain operable. The last nuclear plant in America, Watts Bar 1 in Tennessee, was built in 1996 and building it took 20 years. No country or energy company goes into nuclear for short-term gains. Nuclear is a century-long investment and a commitment to fuel a nation’s future by providing clean energy critical to economic security and long-term growth.  

The payoff is clear. One nuclear reactor has the capacity factor to produce one gigawatt (enough to power a mid-size city), is incredibly safe and reliable, and has near-zero emissions. India has proven the nuclear model with 22 legacy plants they are expanding that uniquely reprocess fuel in a method perfected by Indian nuclear scientists.  

India needs hundreds — not tens — of nuclear reactors within the next decade to meet its domestic energy and environmental demands while maintaining its global commitments. There have been several days where the air in interior cities like Delhi is unbreathable, leading schools and businesses to close their doors, and last year the Indian Supreme Court ordered the government to find a solution to the air quality problem.  

To put into perspective the audacity of the challenge to build this many reactors, China currently has plans to build 150 new nuclear reactors in the next 15 years and will soon become the world’s largest nuclear power producer at a reported cost of $440 billion. If India is to build reactors at the same scale as China, it should be their top domestic priority, and they would benefit from investment and assistance from reliable partners such as South Korea, Japan, America and Europe.  

India can take the lead in global nuclear power modernization by partnering with private sector players innovating in the space such as Nuscale, which produces small modular reactors, or Bill Gates’ TerraPower. Smaller, less expensive, safer, easier and faster to build nuclear power plants cooled with new technologies such as Natrium can power entire mid-sized cities. Terrapower is currently proving out this technology in Wyoming with the U.S. Department of Energy, and India should consider them to build modern plants in India. 

When Tesla does decide to sell their cars in India, let’s hope the charging stations are powered by nuclear. 

David C. Mulford is a former U.S. ambassador to India and distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. John Rivera-Dirks is a former U.S. Diplomat to India and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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