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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nuclear Dilemma


This is in response to RT @PritishNandy: While nuclear power has become a no-no in most parts of the world, why are we persisting with Jaitapur?

After tweeting Mr. Nandy that I would blog on it, it struck me that I still don't have a clear opinion on the issue, just a bunch of arguments, facts and the compulsion of being politically correct and honest at the same time.:)
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So, about a week back I was in the no-no-nuclear camp,mostly because it was the most politically correct point of view, but lacked conviction. Just a couple of years back during the Indo-US nuclear deal, there were lots of voices commending the merits of clean nuclear energy, now just a few years later it can't have lost all of those! Of course the disaster in Japan was great and fear of nuclear reactor meltdown loomed large but is there an alternative, especially for us Indians ? What happened in Japan was freakish, only an earthquake of this magnitude could have caused this scale of damage to the reactor, and Japan is one of the very few countries where an earthquake of this magnitude could have occured, tsunami itself is a Japanese word.    Somehow it seems freakish that all of these should have occurred naturally. Could a repetation of this occur in other parts of world ? The infographic that Guardian posted the world map displays seismic activities and nuclear installations around the world.



Here is an interactive Google Map displaying earthquake zones and nuclear plants across the world.

As is apparent from the map, India is not especially prone to earthquakes, Fukushima on the other hand sits right on top of the infamous "ring of fire ", zone with unusually high seismic activities.Rest of the nuclear plants in Japan,Koreas,China,Iran and even a few in the US are located in known earthquake zones too. Chances of a high magnitude earthquake or a tsunami hitting India's nuclear installation is quite bleak when compared to the plants of the above listed countries. But the threat may diminish,it doesn't disappear altogether so 
question that still remains unanswered is, why the heck should we build nuclear plants in the first place knowing fully well the damage they can inflict if things go wrong. Frustratingly, the answer is the same we have heard all these years but may not have fully comprehended it- to avoid the impending energy crisis in the near future, in a magnitude that we cannot anticipate now.

A recent  Op-Ed by former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar's in the Times of India  throws some important information to light. According to him, per capita consumption of electricity in India is half of the world average and a 14th of per capita consumption of developed countries. Going by the current paradigm of development,electricity would be the key factor in alleviating India's mammoth poverty stricken population. Even if we do not raise our per capita consumption but take electricity to all of our 1.6 billion compatriots, using thermal plants, our coal reserves would run out in 11 years. Our total hydro-potential can generate only 5% and solar can provide a mere 2%! Solar energy can be harvested more efficiently but the cost it would require now, would make it counter-productive.

At the same time, let us look at the risks we face in turning to nuclear energy. This whole debate has been triggered by the fear of meltdown of nuclear reactor in Fukushima. As of yet there have been no deaths directly related to nuclear radiation leaking from the reactor. Even the deaths of the workers of the facility have been attributed to the powerful earthquake and the accompanying tsunami that killed about 20,000 people besides them. Even in case of he worst nuclear disaster ever,Chernobyl, the number of fatalities is 47 and of the 4000 victims who developed cancer, 99% recovered from it.The same number of people, ie. 4000 die everyday all across the world because of indoor air pollution resulting from the use of solid fuels which the poorer sections use. Half of the victims are children.Going through the numbers reminds me of  a Superman quote  "Statistically speaking it's (air travel) still the safest way to travel"   It is a fact that a lot of people tend to think that air crashes claim maximum lives among those lost while traveling. But the fact is, a lot more lives are lost in motor accidents. In a similar manner, we are so alarmed with a nuclear reactor accident that we forget that we are doing as much damage every day by polluting the environment and depriving future generations of their share of natural resources.

However, it cannot be denied that we are playing with fire but do we have a choice  ? The first human who discovered how to create fire was also the first human to play with fire. Iron and fire are the means through which human civilization has progressed, cutting of trees is undoubtedly wrong but would our houses and furniture have existed without it ? Ever major technological breakthrough has come at a cost which nature has had to pay for. Installation of a nuclear plant does raise concern, it could be disastrous if  things go as wrong as they did in Fukushima reactor but even in the current times a lot more Indians die every day because of their lack of accessibility to modern technological facilities.

PS: This post is focused on the perils vs advantages of nuclear installations and is not linked to Jaitapur protests. On the latter, my opinion is pretty bland, if the people if Jaitabur do not want the reactor built there, there is no reason for the government to  build it there, just as was the case in Shingur, Niyamgiri  or any other place.
 

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