The recent earthquake and tsunami has put a question mark on nuclear energy not just in Japan but all over the world. Just when the world was talking about a nuclear renaissance, even before the child is born it looks like the burial ground is getting ready – and people are already charting a future course to ensure it has a sound burial.
India, with its enormous energy needs, has always been at the forefront of keeping nuclear as one of its energy options. It has been one of the prime strategic objectives of independent India ever since the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, envisioned India as a self-reliant nation. All subsequent Prime Ministers made nuclear issues an area of their direct responsibility and the nuclear establishment of India always remained under the direct administrative controls of Prime Ministers – right up to the present one.
One of the reasons for this is, it was always thought that India could be at the forefront of using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The world was shaken to the core by the catastrophe unleashed on humanity when America dropped two bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the horror stories that followed. India always thought it would need huge energy in the years to come; at the same time it felt that technology had to be the bedrock of the modern development of the country. Using known technology not for destructive purposes but for peaceful means, it was thought, could help humanity achieve its higher goals.
India thus initiated a nuclear programme during Homi Bhabha’s time and continued to pursue the same till recently. Incidentally India conducted two nuclear weapons tests – Pokran 1 and Pokran 2 – using the same know-how with which it pursued nuclear power for peaceful purposes. So in a way, the acquisition of technical capabilities for generating nuclear power was helping India pursue a professed strategic objective. India always maintained though that its nuclear capabilities are only a deterrent to ensure that it does not face any nuclear attack from those who already have nuclear weapons.
India, while pursuing its objective of nuclear energy, suffered a great setback in 1974 after Pokhran 1 when there was a virtual technological embargo imposed on it by the most advanced countries. It was thus thrust upon India to develop an indigenous technology. And India has been trying to develop a fast breeder reactor technology which can generate nuclear power by using locally-available thorium reserves to generate electricity without having to depend on imported stock of uranium. This required some uranium stock in the short run to propel the process to the next level of generating electricity by using thorium.
India’s goal was to generate 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2020. Currently nuclear power generation in India is less than 3% of India’s total electric installed capacity. And according to the Planning Commission’s estimate, with all the ambitious targets on nuclear energy, India’s total energy mix from nuclear would not be more than 8% of projected installed capacity by 2035.
India’s energy needs are so high that we need all forms of energy. Coal, which is 63% of today’s energy basket, is vulnerable to domestic coal stock which will get exhausted in next 40 years at today’s’ level of generation of power. Oil, which is mostly imported and will, by 2040, be more than 85% of our demand, will be met by imports and cannot guarantee India’s energy security. And gas, which is in short supply even to meet today’s demand, cannot be a dependable part of the energy basket of the future.
India does however need every form of electricity while it works on diversifying its energy portfolio to bring in more clean and green energy to address the new challenges posed by climate change. That would mean generating solar, wind, bio-mass, geo-thermal, oceanic energy, energy through waves and all that. But it is a futuristic scenario. While India makes the transition possible, it must have a sound base to ensure that the transition does not cause any instability. So before India takes off, it must be sure about a landing point somewhere. Thus was India so long dependent on – and even now – dependant on fossil fuels and nuclear, though the latter in a limited way.
Even before the Japan incident, nuclear power was always suspect especially on safety issues. Nuclear waste disposal has been one of the most contentious issues, not just because of the radiation content but also the waste, not being bio degradable, will cause several health and human life-related risk issues. Though there have been limited accidents for nuclear reactors, even then public opinion has always been against the nuclear power.
Paradoxically the countries with the higher opposition to nuclear power are also those countries that were producing the nuclear energy. For example Japan, for all its sensitivities to nuclear technology, used to procure 30% of its electricity from nuclear sources. France, where for some time the green party was in the government, was totally opposed to a new nuclear plant even though 70% of its electricity is generated by State-owned companies like Electricite de France. Whenever a new plant was proposed, governments saw a great upheaval. In Finland, for instance, Ms. Satu Hassi, now a member of the European Parliament, resigned her job as the Environment minister, to protest against an upcoming nuclear plant.
Street protests, whenever there was transportation of nuclear waste, were a regular feature in many European cities. The US, which again was a strong proponent of nuclear power, has not put up a new nuclear plant for almost three decades now. Chernobyl, which was the symbol for nuclear disaster, was touted as a failure of a state like the USSR to maintain a high-technology asset, resulting in such avoidable accidents. Japan, for all its known sensitivity to nuclear as well as obsession for a high level of sophisticated living and quest for better living standards was always insistent on very high safety and security standards for their nuclear plants. Japan has over a period of time, developed awesome capabilities of weather forecasting, disaster management and capabilities to deal with any natural calamity.
However the failure of the various agencies in Japan, despite the best possible assistance coming from all parts of the world to control and limit the damage to the nuclear assets, has posed several new questions about the future of nuclear energy. It was always thought that Chernobyl was a freak and happened due to weak responses and capabilities of a not so advanced state. Japan can never be compared to any other state which lacks technological ability, political will or a commitment to look at the welfare of her citizens. And therefore post-Japan, nuclear power will have to answer a lot of new questions.
Here are some of the apprehensions raging in the minds of people.
- Nuclear power is certainly clean but with such grave inherent risk factors. Could the world not look at other, cleaner options which do not have such inborn risk associated with it? Perhaps the so called nuclear renaissance could be for another clean power technology like solar power.
- A country like India would add only 8% of its total energy mix from nuclear and thus has to depend upon more than 90% of its requirement from other energy sources. So why risk taking nuclear into its energy basket?
- Natural disasters can occur any time and cannot be very scientifically predicted – as proved in this and earlier tsunamis. Also, the tsunami which follows an earthquake can hit the shores of countries beyond the site of the earthquake. It is then not possible to look only at seismic activities in and around the location of a nuclear plant, and not factor in accidents occurring in a place far away from the site of a nuclear installation.
- Climate change which is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuel, was one of the reasons that kept nuclear in favour nuclear, a non-green-house gas-emitting source of electricity. However the very reason for climate change is the possibility of so many new natural disasters taking place as predicted by IPCC and other global scientists. If the frequency of natural disasters rise and their unpredictability is proven, how can countries risk nuclear power installations which could cause even further damage, going beyond natural disasters?
- The commercial cost of nuclear power: the demand for nuclear power has pushed up prices for reactors and equipment. Indeed the hype surrounding the so-called nuclear power has increased the demand for uranium which again has pushed up the cost of nuclear energy even before the Japan accident occurred. Now with the type of damages likely to be claimed by citizens and others from the nuclear plant operator, it will be even more expensive to put up a new nuclear plant. There is no insurance company that will provide an open-ended cover to the unknown risks that could happen due to an accident of this nature. That again will increase the cost of nuclear power beyond anyone’s reach. Globally the nuclear power companies have been partially successful in convincing national governments to underwrite some of the risks by asking them to legislate on nuclear liability law.
Now with their eyes wide open and clear about the reality of nuclear power that has dawned on them after Japan, it seems unlikely that any sovereign government will take on their books an open energy liability – one which any tax payer would cheerfully end.
All these put together will increase nuclear costs. Add to this the new possible laws that will come into play for ever more stringent safety and compensation regulation, bowing to public demand and seeking protection, thereby driving costs higher.
Any new nuclear plant that will have to come up will have to be located in a place which any other neighbourhood or communities living in the direct proximity of such a location will not object. It’s inconceivable that those who have seen radiation levels reach the US, China and across Japan, will agree to play host to a new nuclear facility. People have experience with radiation going into water, agricultural products, air, land, not necessarily in the direct radius of activities of the nuclear plant but far, far beyond. So people will really ask the questions: how will a new nuclear plant coming up benefit their national interest of energy security, or why should a community or city or town who are directly in contact with radiation from accident, agree to this catastrophe. So public resistance and outcry is what the future of nuclear power will have to address.
Accidents do take place in any situation and any circumstances to any asset and to any installation generating electricity. But the uniqueness of nuclear accidents is that affected people suffer not only in this generation, but also for posterity. So power generated to improve the life of today’s citizens but pass on the risk to posterity, is an inter-generational issue that needs to be addressed.
Suresh Prabhu is the former Union Minister for Power.
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