Abandon nuclear path

Abandon nuclear path

Risks vs benefits

The contribution of nuclear power to energy needs has to be weighed against the risks associated with its generation.

A few months ago it was Jaitapur; now it is Kudankulam. The Central government is hell bent on seeing these projects through. It is at the behest of prime minister Manmohan Singh in particular that despite massive and sustained protests by the local people, the Centre is determined on starting these nuclear power plants. The government is behaving like a bull that has seen red and is accusing some local NGOs and a ‘foreign hand’ of scuttling India’s march towards energy self-sufficiency by engineering these protests. This entire hullabaloo is based on the proposition that nuclear power is going to provide a solution to much of our energy crunch. However, the proposition is substantially flawed.

No one denies that India needs considerable and increasing amount of energy in order to sustain its economic growth. However, the contribution of nuclear power for the expanding basket of its energy needs is going to be a minor one – even after all the proposed nuclear power projects now and in the future are accounted for. Let us take a stock of the situation.

Of the current total installed power generation capacity of 172 gw, only 4.8 gw is by way of nuclear power from the currently operational projects at Kaiga, Kakrapar, Kalpakkam, Narora, Rawatbhata and Tarapur. This is 2.8 per cent. The additional nuclear power units under construction and firmly proposed are at Kudankulam, Jaitapur, Pati Sonapur, Kumaharia, Pulivendula, Kovvada, Haripur and Banswara are to add up to the nuclear power capacity of 20 gw by the year 2020. However, by 2017 itself, India’s power requirement will soar to 315 gw even when the economy grows at an average estimate of 8 per cent per annum, according to a McKinsey report.

Extrapolating, by 2022, the power requirement will be about 465 gw of which a maximum of 27 gw may come from nuclear power which is just 5.8 per cent.  As per the reported macro plans, India would aim for a nuclear power generation capacity of 64 gw by the year 2032. If we extrapolate the needs of power increasing at 8 per cent, by 2032 India may need over 1100 gw of power. However, the nuclear power availability is going to be only a small 5.8 per cent of the total requirement. In short, the contribution of nuclear power is always going to be very small – less than 6 per cent. Then why all this fuss?
Nuclear energy is not the answer to our rapidly growing needs for energy. It might be helpful to a small extent, but it is surely going to be only a small help.

All the present uproar about the need for nuclear power and the blame-game are perhaps a panic reaction to the realisation of the sheer size of the power needs in order to keep up the current economic growth. Government of India does seem confused; while its plans for the expansion of nuclear energy generation are based mainly on the Indo-US nuclear deal, it seems to accuse the western powers of putting a damper on its nuclear power plans through a secret hand in the people’s agitations. There is no need for such desperation.

One-sided view

In any case, the possible contribution of nuclear power has to be weighed against the risks associated with its generation. A one-sided view will do us no good. Nuclear power is never risk-free whatever may be the precautions that are taken during its generation and other operations. We are not talking here of the Fukushima type of disaster. With all the fantastically safe reactor technology that the Russians may be offering at Kudankulam, the basic problem of radioactive wastes, from normal operations, remains. That is the Achilles’ heel.

The fuel rods are only partially used before they are discarded as spent fuel rods. The best place to store or dispose off the waste from a nuclear reactor is in deep underground repositories as all nuclear literature would tell us. But, as of now, that is just theoretical knowledge. Because, no country has made use of such a storage site as yet. All nuclear power plants store their radioactive waste at the site of the plant itself. The waste would remain highly radioactive for a period that could span anywhere from a few centuries to several thousands of years. It is a long term problem affecting the future of human race.

Then, there is a huge problem of decommissioning nuclear reactors after their useful life. Old non-functional nuclear reactors are worrisome. Nuclear power generation is not a decision that needs to be taken in isolation of its very long term ramifications. The expediency of economic growth for the present couple of decades can never be a justification for choosing it. That will be as myopic as looking only at the tip of one’s nose.
When we look at today’s world of conflict and disharmony among nations or other groups of people, terrorist attack on the nuclear facilities is a distinct possibility.

Fukushima disaster has not only shown up the weaknesses in the face of natural calamities but has also raised questions about the general vulnerability of the nuclear power plant in the face of other forms disaster. Just because we had earlier taken a decision to go for nuclear power does not mean we cannot reverse the decision now. Twenty years ago the world was ignorant of the enormity of risks. Now it is better informed. Also, in the pursuit of glittering economic growth and with the competition for natural resources, conflicts have increased worldwide and have taken different shapes. There is nothing wrong in reversing the earlier decision.

Moreover, there are other quite harmless alternative renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind energy that can be pursued. Focused and speedy R&D on these alternatives would yield solutions that are safe, harmless, environmentally sound and economically viable. That is the way to go.

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

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