Risks outweigh benefits

Risks outweigh benefits

The Push for Nuclear Power

Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu is on the boil. In the recent past it was Jaitapur in Maharashtra. The issue is not about whether ‘x’ political party or ‘y’ political party is behind the people’s agitation against nuclear power. It is immaterial to the real burning problem which is about peoples’ fear, anguish, frustration, and at times anger.

Kudankulam and Jaitapur only represent a much larger issue which is anything but local. It is about a vitally important national policy matter. The residents of Kudankulam are protesting because nuclear power itself is very risk-prone and the nuclear reactors at Kudankulam in particular are quite suspect in this vital aspect.

Kudankulam nuclear power plant has Russian VVER-1000 design reactors, which – according to reports emanating from Russia itself – are suspect in their safety features against natural and man-made disasters. After Fukushima disaster, an internal report prepared for the Russian president Medvedev has seriously questioned the safety aspects of Russian nuclear reactors.

One wonders as to why is our Central government is running after nuclear power in such desperation? Time and again the citizens of this country are being told that there is no alternative to nuclear power and that India cannot sustain its economic growth without a rapid expansion in its nuclear power generation capacity. That George W Bush’s gift to India before he stepped down from the president’s office – the Indo-US nuclear deal - must be made best use of. However, the actual figures regarding the possible contribution of nuclear energy towards India’s power needs – now and in the future - tell a different story.

Today the installed electric power generation capacity in the country – a sum of thermal, hydro, nuclear and renewable energy – is 178 giga watt (gw). With the 20 nuclear plants that we already have in this country, the nuclear power generation capacity is only 4.8 gw. With the help of the so-called nuclear deal with the US, we hope to increase the nuclear power generation capacity to 20 gw by 2020 and 64 gw by 2032. However, let not the figures fool us.

The nuclear power, even under these optimistic estimates, is going to contribute to a meager 9 per cent of the total need for power at its best. The question, therefore, one would like to pose to our government is: Why are we making such a big deal of the nuclear power? It is not going to solve our projected problem of shortage of power in any substantial manner. Is the government telling us the full story or does it have any hidden agenda?

Danger all the way
The contribution of nuclear option to the required future total power needs is going to be small; but its associated dangers are very huge. After all we are dealing with radioactivity – from the mining and refining of the ore to the nuclear plant where it is used to the waste from the plant that is stored to the old reactors that are old but radioactivity-wise active and need to be kept away for generations. It is danger all the way. Moreover, it is a danger for not only the present generation of people but for several generations – possibly hundreds of years - in the future.

The risks of a nuclear plant are of four kinds: 1. Accidents, due to human error, like what happened in Chernobyl; accidents due to natural forces like the recent Fukushima disaster due to the massive earthquake and the following tsunami; 2. Radioactive waste disposal from the nuclear power plants which is a huge problem still without any practical solution other than storing right on the plant itself; 3. Theft of nuclear material by enemy or terror groups; and 4. Attack by the terrorists or enemy groups on the nuclear power plants themselves.

Residents of Kudankulam are worried about the first two dangers of having a nuclear power plant in the vicinity of their homes. This worry is quite understandable, whatever excuses the government’s emissary – minister Narayanasamy – may present to the residents in order to persuade them.

It may also be realised that a terrorist attack is a real danger with nuclear power plants. A decade or two ago, we may not have thought of the danger from such groups with much seriousness. Damage that can be inflicted by terrorists can be as nasty as or nastier than any natural accident, because the attack would have been preplanned precisely targeting the most vulnerable spots. Today, in the greedy pursuit of economic growth, the sellers of nuclear power technologies and the eager buyers are both turning a Nelson’s eye to the imminent dangers.

So, the opposition to Kudankulam and Jaitapur or other nuclear plants is not limited to inadequate land use planning or improper land acquisitions or prices paid or that remain to be paid. It should be seen as symbolic of the people’s expression of their refusal to the addition of any more nuclear power installations in the name of economic growth.

There can be other options to managing energy needs: For a start, and a good one at that, let us improve the efficiency of generation, transmission and distribution of power. This will go a long way. Secondly, let us make efforts on a war-footing to harness the abundant natural renewable energy in the form of solar energy. We must explore safe options.
(The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)