A dangerous option

Nuclear power

When a country’s economy grows at a whopping 9 per cent per year, its energy needs are bound to grow at an equally rapid pace. This is the case with India which came out of its economic slumber just about two decades ago. Its power needs have risen acutely over the recent years.

At present, India has an installed capacity of power generation of 172 gw (giga watt). By 2017, its power requirement will soar to 315 gw even when the economy grows at a conservative estimate of 8 per cent per annum, according to a McKinsey report. India’s need for electrical power is going to more than double the latter figure by 2030, ie the demand for power is going to grow well over 600 gw in another 20 years.

Of the current total installed generation capacity of 172 gw a huge 111.3 gw is thermal power, 37.4 gw is hydroelectric, 18.5 gw is renewable energy and only 4.8 gw is by way of nuclear power. While the country’s present nuclear power generation capacity is 4.8 gw, the plans are to increase it to 20 gw by 2020 which would also fall woefully short. As of 2010, India has 20 nuclear reactors in operation in 6 nuclear power plants.

Some of the major projects in the pipeline are those at Kundanakulam in Tamil Nadu, Kaiga in Karnataka, Jaitapur in Maharashtra and Pati Sonapur in Orissa. India’s nuclear power industry is undergoing rapid expansion with plans to increase nuclear power output to 64 gw by 2032. India has plans to increase the contribution of nuclear power to overall electricity generation capacity from 4.2 per cent to 9 per cent within 25 years.

But even this figure of 9 per cent is not saying too much about the option of nuclear power. Nuclear energy is certainly not going to solve the problem of our rapidly growing demand for electric power.

It might lend help in meeting the need to a small extent, but it is surely going to be only a minor help. All the present hype about the need for nuclear power seems to be just that — ‘hype’ or a panic reaction to the realisation of the enormity of the power needs in order to sustain the current economic growth. Some foreign powers that have nuclear power generation equipment to sell would be expected to add to the hype.

Nuclear power has always been associated with awesome risks: 1. Accidents of the Chernobyl (human error) and now Fukushima type (natural disaster), 2. Radioactive waste from the normal operation of the reactor, 3. Stealing of reactive material to make a nuclear device (by terrorist groups) and 4. Attack by terror groups to explode the nuclear power reactor and associated equipment.

Vulnerability

The recent Fukushima disaster has not only shown up the weaknesses in the face of natural calamities but also should raise questions about the general vulnerability of the nuclear power plant in the face of other forms of shaking or breaking it up, particularly a terrorist planned attack on the nuclear facilities.

It may be argued that a nuclear power plant cannot cause an explosion like a nuclear bomb. But, the radioactivity released will be of as dangerous a proportion or more. The radioactive fission products of a nuclear power plant are exactly the same as those of a nuclear explosion. One should note that we are not talking about ‘accident’ at the nuclear plant, but a planned attack by enemy groups.

In an accident, like the one at Fukushima Daiichi, the entire contents of the core of the reactor may not disperse. Accidents are generally incapable of pouring out the core of the reactor; however, a preplanned attack by terrorist elements is a totally different scenario. That is the real danger with nuclear power plants. A decade or two ago, the threat perception from the terrorist elements was almost unthought-of.

The problem is multiplied several times if one considers the fact that, all over the world, the nuclear wastes are stored on the ground at the site of the nuclear power plant. Only 5 per cent of the nuclear fuel rod is used up and the rest — 95 per cent — is stored as waste.

Theoretically, the nuclear wastes from the power plants should best be stored underground in a specially designed space, but no country in the world, including India, has as yet started work on such underground repository. Therefore, the over-the-ground stores of such nuclear wastes could be another additional target for the terrorists. All in all, a nuclear power plant is a sitting duck for the terrorist attacks. Therefore, nuclear power cannot be an alternative whatever may be India’s compulsions of energy requirements.

India can put a stop to any further expansion in its nuclear power generation capacity. There are other no-risk alternatives for obtaining power like the renewables. The country will have to do a lot more serious work on its abundant endowments of solar energy. Let us rid ourselves of the West-preached mindset of dependence on high risk-prone nuclear energy. A time should come, and soon enough, when India should be selling solar power technology to other nations of the world.

(The author is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)

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