Monday, October 03, 2011
A suicidal path on nuclear energy
There seems to be something contrived in the anti-nuclear agitations that have come to life in the country. This is the time when the India’s enormous fifty-year old investments in nuclear energy, as well as diplomacy related to nuclear energy, are about to pay off. It is true that the Fukushima disaster has shaken up not just Japan, but the entire world. But any fair analysis of the incident would show that it was the outcome of a sequence of events, rather than one incident, a combination that is unlikely to recur in the future.
Because of India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the Indian nuclear programme became subject to a series of embargoes organised by the United States. This led to a stunting of the programme, since our scientific community was unable to overcome the challenge. Even so, with the sheer passage of time, and some help from countries like France and Russia, India constructed a valuable nuclear estate whose crown jewel has been a fast breeder reactor which is being constructed at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu.
Parallel to this was the diplomacy undertaken by the NDA and UPA governments which eventually led to the United States calling off the international embargo against India and allowing India’s civil nuclear industry unhindered access to the world nuclear industry. This has enabled India to obtain scarce nuclear fuel from abroad, as well as reactor technology and the massive upfront investments that are needed for nuclear power plants.
There have always been people opposed to the use of nuclear energy in India. But their numbers could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Remarkably, the prominent nuclear abolitionists even today —Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik— date back three decades and more. But in recent times, there seems to be a resurgence of protest given the movements in Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Haripur in West Bengal and now Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.
However, a closer look will reveal that the main cause for the protests is not so much nuclear energy, but other issues like the land acquisition process, dissatisfaction with development and unrelated political dynamics. Unlike, say, a coal-based thermal power plant, a nuclear plant requires much more land because of safety requirements. But in terms of risks, a big dam poses similar risk of killing thousands if it bursts.
But the protests against the nuclear plants have seen an unlikely coalition of forces ranging from the Left and Shiv Sena in the case of Jaitapur, to Vaiko and a clutch of church leaders in Kudankulam. By invoking safety and involving the traditional anti-nuclear groups, the movements have sought to seize the high moral ground.
A lot of the middle-class brain power is provided by broad based coalitions such as the National Alliance of People’s Movements which are against almost everything—multinational companies, big dams, the use of coal, land acquisition, big industry and World Trade Organisation and so on. Just where the money for many of their constituent NGOs comes from is not clear, but it is not a small sum. Increasingly associated with them are large public sector unions whose goal is to prevent a dismantling of their sector, regardless of economic developments or logic. Shiv Sena, Vaiko and many of the politicians have no reason to be associated in an anti-nuclear protest, other than to fish in troubled waters.
There is no doubt that the nuclear power industry in India has been inefficiently, even incompetently, run. This is in great measure due to the molly-coddling of the Department of Atomic Energy by the government. But for the last decade or so, when government became aware of the inability of the DAE to provide for the country’s nuclear power needs, things have changed and the nuclear deal was one outcome of this.
The DAE has always hidden itself behind walls of secrecy. While this could be understood when it came to the nuclear weapons programme, there was no reason why the nuclear power programme could not have been as transparent as, say, the Indian space programme.
In great measure the problems that have arisen at the places where the country is seeking to build new power plants are a result of the inability of the country’s nuclear establishment to reach out to people and allay their fears. After Fukushima, this task has been even more compelling. Everyone who lives within 30 or 40 kilometres of a nuclear power plant should have real-time access to radiation data from there. The government has spoken of making the regulation of the Indian nuclear industry more effective and transparent, but till now nothing has happened.
Post-Fukushima there has been a lot of rethinking on nuclear power. But as of now only Germany has announced its withdrawal from the path of nuclear power. But it was on that track well before Fukushima. The one reason for this is that countries realise that though there is some risk with nuclear power, there are also advantages. Principally they relate to the environment, since nuclear power is carbon free and it does not require a vast logistical chain of railway trains, tankers or pipelines to supply fuel to the power plant.
As a rich and technologically advanced country, Germany can have the luxury of doing without nuclear power. Even so, before it shut down 8 plants in March this year, nuclear power amounted to 23 per cent of its total requirement. Renewable energy already accounts for 17 per cent. In contrast, nuclear energy accounts for a measly 3 per cent of Indian electricity generation and renewable energy, 10.6 per cent.
Again, in contrast to Germany, or other advanced countries, the choice before India is not nuclear or renewable as the source, but power itself. Large parts of the country do not have electricity at all, and even those that have suffer from prolonged power cuts. Tamil Nadu whose assembly is set to pass a resolution against nuclear power has faced severe power shortages in the last two years bringing its booming industrial sector to a grinding halt.
Industrial countries have been talking of a “nuclear renaissance” based on newer, much safer nuclear technology. As it is, they have already derived considerable benefits from nuclear power. Nearly 30 per cent of electricity in Japan still comes from nuclear energy, Switzerland 40 per cent, France 75 per cent, and the figures for the US are 20 per cent, even though no new nuclear reactor has been added in its system for decades.
India is on the threshold of its industrial era. But that is likely to be strangled if the alliance of anti-industrialisation and neo-Gandhian groups are able to ride on the people’s anger against land acquisition and underdevelopment to bring their utopian agenda to the fore. What we need is sober and hard-headed political leadership that is able to contain its populist impulses for a while to enable the country’s development agenda move ahead.
At the same time, we need to open ourselves up to viable alternatives, which could be in the area of nuclear energy, or any other form. There is, for example, the case of pebble bed reactors which are much safer and can use our abundant thorium resources.
Of course, this has to be within the paradigm of normal development, not a Gandhian regression of our society back to the villages, where life would once again be nasty, brutish and short.
Mail Today September 22, 2011