At a time when the risks of a nuclear accident, even a war, are at an unprecedented level, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global industry regulator, has made an appearance at the climate change conference for the first time, underlining the sector’s key role in effecting a quick transition away from fossil fuel-based energy sources. At COP27, IAEA director general Rafael Mariano Grossi has been pitching nuclear energy as part of the solution to the climate crisis, not a problem itself. The nuclear industry, however, has faced huge opposition from a section of climate activists at previous climate change meetings, citing the risks and the costs.
In an interview with The Indian Express at COP27, Grossi spoke about the current situation in Ukraine where a large nuclear power plant has been turned into one of the riskiest battlefields, why many countries were still opting for nuclear energy, and how nuclear energy was integral to any clean energy transition. He also answered questions on the expansion of India’s nuclear power sector, the large gestation periods in constructing new plants, and the recent incident of misfiring of a Brahmos missile.
Q: We are always told that nuclear energy is part of the solution to the climate crisis. How much of a solution can nuclear offer, when, for a majority of the countries in the world, nuclear energy is not even an option? It does not even figure in the equation in more than half the countries.
You are right. Nuclear is already, as of now, part of the solution. It is not part of the problem. And that already is a very important departure from the usual point of conversation (on nuclear). Nuclear currently produces 25 per cent of the global clean energy. In some countries, it is even more. For example, in Europe, it is half of the clean energy portfolio. In the United States, it is half. That is one thing.
I would then say one should look at all the places where the problem of global warming mainly stems from (all the large emitters), and we see that all of these countries have, or are on the path of, nuclear. In each of these countries, nuclear is an important part of the equation. For example, China is aggressively looking into nuclear. As we speak, they are constructing 18 more nuclear reactors. At a breathtaking pace. India is also increasing the percentage (of nuclear energy in its energy mix). In all the big economies, you have nuclear energy.
In the countries where, until now, nuclear energy has not been an option, there is a growing demand for nuclear. And, it is very interesting to be having this conversation here in Egypt which is a country that is now going for nuclear. They are constructing a huge nuclear power plant in Dabah, not very far from here. In a few years, you would have a good percentage of electricity of this country having nuclear origin. There are other countries in Africa with which IAEA is already working on the path for nuclear, like Ghana, Kenya, Namibia. There are a number of countries. South Africa has decided to expand (its nuclear sector) after doubting about it, and has decided to expand… go for more nuclear capacity. And in the global south, you have Argentina going for more, Brazil going for more.
So, I would say nuclear is growing, perhaps not at the pace it is required to (from the climate change perspective). According to the estimates, not from the IAEA, but IEA and even the IPCC, nuclear energy needs to more than double if we have to maximise the CO2 abatement. At least double, that is what the IEA says. Others say it should tripled or quadrupled.
But even without getting into that, which seems like a bit of fantasy at this moment, I can realistically say that in the next few years, we will see an expansion, clear expansion of the nuclear energy (across the world).
Q: From the climate change perspective, what is the best case scenario for nuclear energy? How much can be installed globally in time to help achieving the 1.5 or 2 degree Celsius temperature targets?
At the moment, globally it (nuclear energy capacity) is very low. It is about 10-11 per cent of global energy supplies, but it is still higher than renewables. It can be overtaken by renewables, given the massive investment that is moving into renewables now. But, realistically speaking, we can foresee nuclear energy reaching 20 per cent of global energy within the next decade or so, if current plans move at the same pace, in the United States, France, in rest of Europe. In Europe, we have massive nuclear investment — in Poland, Hungary, all the eastern crescent — may be driven by geopolitical factors. But it is also countries that did not have any nuclear like Poland are going nuclear. Poland has just announced a massive contract with WestingHouse which is interesting.
We see the trend is there, the conditions are there.
Q: Nuclear, traditionally, has had a handicap. In fact, more than one handicap. There have been concerns over safety, costs, pricing, waste disposal, investments. There are two parts to this question. In light of climate crisis becoming as urgent as it has, do you see some of the reservations on nuclear power melting away? And if it is not, then, how do you see nuclear competing with something like solar which has near universal acceptance?
There are a number of things there. What you call handicaps… half of them have to do with narrative and half may have to do with real factors, or facts. When it comes to what I call narrative, would be when, for example, some people say nuclear waste is a tremendous problem that the nuclear industry is passing on to the future generations. That is completely false. Nuclear waste is perfectly managed and is manageable. In 70 years of commercial nuclear operations, this has never been a problem. And it can continue like that. And we are decisively moving into long term repositories like in Finland, in Sweden very soon. So that is one thing.
Then, you have an issue, may be related with overruns and budgetary issues. Here, again, you have to may be finetune the analysis. Because whereas it is true, and one should not deny it, that there have been some egregious cases of overruns like in Finland and France etc, it is not the rule. These are exceptions to the rule. In fact, if you look at the average… cost overruns and delays also. Cost overruns may be depending on the country you are talking about. If you talk about China, they are cheaper, they are fast in constructing their nuclear plants. They resemble what we saw in America in the 1970s — every five years the addition of a new nuclear power plant. They take five years, and sometimes even less (to build). There have been some built in three and a half years. Frankly, there is nothing inherent that prevents the building of nuclear reactor within a very reasonable time frame which matches with what you are saying about the global climate crisis. Because when some people, detractors of nuclear, say may be it takes too long… may be it is good but it takes too long, it is actually false. It is not correct. If you are talking about abating CO2 by 2040 or 2050, well if you have ten more reactors in India in the next ten years, well that is excellent.
There is this constant moving of the goalposts that has to do much more with some, may be, with ideological or economic interests that may be there. So, most definitively nuclear has a very clear way forward. The thing is whether you can expand the model to developing countries, whether you are going to have a nuclear matrix which is more flexible with the introduction of modularity, small and modular reactors — not only for developing countries but also in industrialised economies. So, when people like Bill Gates talk about small and modular reactors, this is not thinking about Africa, he of course doesn’t exclude Africa, but he is thinking about replacing coal plants in US or in other advanced economies where technologies are already mature.
Q: When I talk about cost or time overruns, I also talk from the experience of India. In the last 8-10 years, three nuclear reactors have come online. And ten more have been approved. Our total installed capacity remains less than 7 GW. India’s massive expansion of energy sector is projected to involve 800-900 GW of installed capacity by 2030, may be 1,000 GW, of which about 50 per cent has to come from renewables. That is our commitment. That still leaves about 300-400 GW, or more, that must come either from fossil fuel sources or nuclear. After all the ten currently approved reactors come online, our installed nuclear capacity would still be about 62 GW. From that level, how do you see India reaching to 250 to 300 GW of installed capacity, which is what would be required if nuclear has to offer reliable baseload?
Well, you are right. You see, the Indian case in the nuclear sector, as in many other aspects, is very unique. Because your country is so diverse and has so many unique characteristics. What India has is an incredible dynamism and the technological base which will allow it to do this easily when a decision is taken, unlike many other countries. I can only think of a handful of countries, or even less perhaps, that could have the capacity to go to that range like you are mentioning.
My impression there is that there are a few important internal decisions — I cannot get into internal politics. I hope to be in India within the next few months, and I hope to be learning more from your government and your authorities about their plans but what we may be seeing is a steep increase in India, perhaps not as much as is needed, but the increase will be quite pronounced.
Q: Because it is such a large emitter, and because it is home to so many people, India is key to the success of any global effort on climate change. What do you think needs to happen in India on the nuclear side, keeping the climate solution in mind? What is your outlook for India’s nuclear sector, seeing through this climate prism?
First of all, I see India increasing its nuclear percentage (in the energy mix). I also see India as a platform for new (nuclear) technologies. India is one of those few countries that has been steadily looking into breeders, into fast reactors, into sodium reactors, into many technologies that not many countries have been getting into. So that is the big picture. My question would be whether India would be contemplating small modular reactors. I haven’t seen any indication on that front and I would really like to discuss with the government about that. Because I feel that India, India’s conditions, geography, morphology, huge distances, remote locations, lends itself very well to this type of reactors. But it is still a decision for the government to make. But I see a very bright future for nuclear in India. Indeed.
Q: Since you mention it, it is pertinent to bring it up here. FBR has been under planning for decades now. It is still a technology in development. Do you think India needs to continue pursuing FBR? Is it a viable technology for India?
As a technology it is viable. I guess it will have to be a decision there (in the Indian establishment) if there is going to be a big push in that direction. I don’t see any indication in that direction. I see more science into more traditional type of reactors. But India has also been looking at thorium, for example, for many many years. And it has been one of the most vocal advocates for the thorium cycle. It is a matter of scale. I think, may be realities and the pressing need to decarbonize the matrix will weigh a little bit more in favour of proven technologies. But there is more that I need to learn from the government about that.
Q: One of the big questions relating to nuclear in India, and I am sure this would be true of many other countries as well, is its cost differential with solar. Most of the investments are coming into solar. Also, in India’s case, nuclear sector is a state monopoly. Regulatory restrictions do not allow private investment. Do you think this has something to do with the relatively stunted growth of nuclear in India?
Your question would inevitably force me into the energy policies and regulatory structure in India, and I cannot pass judgment on that. But let me say that the situation in India is not incompatible with rapid growth. Let me put it this way. Rapid nuclear growth can happen under different capitalist or economic models. Take the example of France, or China, or Russia, India, or the United States (all major producers of nuclear power). I am mentioning five models which are very different from each other. There is nothing intrinsically emasculating in what India has that would prevent the growth of its nuclear sector.
Q: But where do you think can the investment in nuclear come from? It is a costly investment, and it is a risky investment, at least it is considered a risky investment because of legacy issues.
You can have big nuclear under all sorts of conditions. And I am not really avoiding your question. I am looking at what I see in the world. Look at the map and you will see that … I mean one answer to your question can be that you have to liberalise the market in India otherwise you will never get investment for nuclear. I won’t give you that answer. I can have a view about that. But that does not mean that you cannot have different scenario… And it also depends on what kinds of partners India is looking at. India has indigenous development and it also has international partnerships. The nuclear sector in India is very diverse. As diverse as India itself. So, I am not surprised. You have every kind of thing. It is very Indian.
Q: We spoke about the handicaps earlier. I would like to come back to that a bit. Considering what is happening in Ukraine, do you think the resistance to the deployment has increased because of that? Would the scepticism against nuclear going to increase?
No, no, no. It works both ways. Take eastern Europe. It has been steroid for nuclear. The war in Ukraine. It has made Poland to decide to go all the way, no doubts about it. Ukraine more, Czech republic more, Slovakia more, Romania more, Bulgaria more… all of them. All of them. And several of them, almost all of them, with the exception may be of Poland, working with Russia. Paradoxical, isn’t it? This is why I say you have to cross the analysis. On the one hand there is this and on the other hand there is the Zaporizhzhia effect. And that is what I am dealing with.
Q: Zaporizhzhia. That was going to be my next question.
Let me address it right away. I can say that I am looking at it of course. I am not looking at it through the prism of the nuclear industry. Zaporizhzhia is a drama, Zaporizhzhia is a tragedy that we need to avoid. Right. But it is obvious as well that if there is, God forbid, a massive nuclear radiological incident or emergency in Zaporizhzhia, perhaps it will stem the interest for nuclear. But that would be a very serious thing in many countries, in many societies, especially in democracies, where the people vote and you have to gain the hearts and minds of people for something.
Q: Does Zaporizhzhia continue to remain a big security concern?
It is bigger every day. Continued shelling. Regular interruptions of external power (which supports cooling systems). Would you have in India a nuclear power plant running like this. Let alone throwing a stone, and you would have a big problem. In India or United States, or in any country. But constant diesel generators running for a few hours, or may be some days… then you have the power back and there is a sigh of relief… but then it starts again three days later.
Q: What about the other nuclear installations and material in Ukraine? Are they safe?
The Ukrainian government has requested me to support three other nuclear power plants and we are supporting them as well. So, I would say it is operating well.
Q: Are they all safe then?
Yes. As safe as they can be in a war.
Q: Going back to your earlier remarks, are you suggesting that the kind of energy crisis that has been precipitated by the Ukraine war is encouraging some countries to opt for nuclear, overcoming their earlier hesitations, because they need stable, reliable source of energy supplies?
It is happening, yes. I wouldn’t say it is something to be celebrated. Just saying it is happening. Let me say it like this. It has operated like a catalyst. Something that accelerates something that was there already… and that was there, existing in reality. Or a highlighter. People realise that if energy security is a concern nuclear gives you the kind of autonomy, reliability you need.
Q: So, may be you would not liked it to happen this way, but this war is convincing some countries to go for nuclear energy.
May be it is just a factor of (matter of) speed but it (the need for nuclear energy) was already there. For all those energy planners looking at this seriously, at least in the industrialised countries, it was obvious before the war, and without the war, that without nuclear you would never get anywhere near the climate change goals. Nowhere near.
Q: What about the resistance from civil society? Governments were not opposed to nuclear energy in a big way in any case.
That is also changing. It will be there. It will continue to be there. There’s no denying that but public opinion also changes. Now, in Germany, for example, 65 per cent of the population is for nuclear, whereas a year ago it was the same in the other direction. So, the Greens in Finland have in their party platform nuclear energy. So, things that would be unthinkable before are happening. So, I think this will also evolve. Thirty years ago people were not anti-nuclear. This has been the result of an accumulation of factors, an accumulation of misinformation, and accumulation also on the opacity of the nuclear side to be self-critical a little bit… reluctance to get into debates, certain despise for environmentalism and things like that. Now, everything has to be discussed.
Q: A few months ago, there was an incident in India about misfiring of a missile. Was that a cause of concern to the IAEA?
Q: Did you take up the matter with the Indian government? Did you seek any information on the incident?
No, we didn’t.
Q: Did the incident raise doubts over the safety of nuclear material in India?
Q: So, absolutely no concerns on that incident?
We are looking at the world. We are looking at the situations and of course we look with interest when a very important member state of the IAEA has issues. But it was never an issue of any specific concern for us.
Q: Are there any questions over the safeguards of Indian nuclear installations and material in general?
India has a unique set of circumstances because of the fact that it chooses not to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is a given. Which responds to a logic of factors beyond my remit. I would like India to be an NPT country. It is not. That being said, we have a very intense, very constructive relationship with India and we are really going to be working on increasing that in the coming years.
Q: Do you expect India to become part of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group anytime soon?
As you know the issue of Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, I worked on that. You remember I used to be the chair of the NSG. This (India’s membership) is still an ongoing discussion. My personal opinion as director general of the IAEA is not so relevant at the moment when we discuss matters of transfer of nuclear technology. But India is, was and will always be an indispensable player when it comes to nuclear.
Q: Do you think there are any good reasons for India not to be a part of the NSG?
I am sure my NSG colleagues are discussing and working on this.