Saturday, April 23, 2011

Jairam Ramesh speaking from both sides of his mouth....

A few days back, Jairam Ramesh said in a press interview that there can be no going back on nuclear power. Jaitapur must go on. Yesterday, he told the Planning Commission meeting chaired by the PM that it was not possible to augment power production capacity by 100,000 MW during the 12th 5-year plan (2012-17) least on the back of coal-based plants. So he appeared to be consistent with his support for nuclear power. Today, he had advised the government to put a pause button on Jaitapur. What’s going on? Why does he keep changing his statements? Is he just trying to be popular?

First and foremost, he has no business to speak about policies on subjects outside his ministry’s domain. His ministry surely has an involvement in Jaitapur....and his clearance is mandatory. He can surely object to a specific nuclear power project on environmental grounds, but commenting on the overall power policy of the government is above his pay grade. That’s for the Power Minister and the PM to dictate. Incidentally, in the case of Jaitapur, his ministry has already given the clearance after putting some 40 conditions for the clearance. Actually, even this is becoming a pattern. So many conditions are put for granting permission, that it looks almost as bad as the much maligned License Raj of the 1960s and 70s......

There really is no alternative to nuclear power. Not because there is no more potential left to exploit thermal power. There is.....but India needs power from ALL sources. The requirements are so stiff that it would be foolish to assume that we can fulfill our needs from only one source. At present, we have only 1.72 lac MW of built-up capacity. In comparison, China has 8 lac MW of capacity. If we need to grow at 9-10% per annum for the next 20-30 years, we need to add power capacity at a very rapid pace. The 12th Plan has taken the target of adding 1 lac MW in the 5 year period starting 2012. We added around 55000 MW in the 11th five year plan (2007-2012). If we need to add so much capacity, should we not be exploiting everything under the sun?

That brings me to the subject of energy from the sun. Or what is typically called “non-conventional” sources of energy (also fashionably called “renewable” sources of power). These sources also include wind power, biogas, tidal power and other similar stuff. Just as the name suggests, these methods of energy generation have not yet become mainstream. One reason is that the capital investments required for generating substantial amounts of energy from them is extremely high. Secondly, even the operating costs are very high.....apparently, the cost of generating solar power is double of what it is for nuclear power. Will Indians be willing to pay (or rather, will we be even able to afford to pay) for such high cost of power? In any case, if the future power capacity has to be built on solar power, a huge chunk of our land resources will be used up in setting up solar impossible situation in a land-starved nation.

Some people argue that if only we reduced our power wastage (during distribution) and theft, we would overcome all our problems. Not true at all. We should reduce these losses, but the savings would be a very small part of what we need in the future. Remember, we need to produce 4 times of what we have today.....a little cutting of losses will not serve our purpose.

Cribbing about nuclear power is similar in many ways to cribbing about air-travel. The scenario built is the worst-case doomsday scenario. Isn’t it the same with air travel? If an air crash were to happen, there is virtually no chance of survival.....while (supposedly) in trains and automobile transport, people have a chance of survival. We just “feel” that way.....we can step off a running train or jump off a car! True, except that the reality is that there are far far more number of people dying in train and road accidents every year than in air accidents. More than 1.5 lac people die on the roads every single year in India......and an equally staggering number in train accidents. People ignore these figures when they make their impassioned pleas against nuclear power. People talk about Fukushima and Chernobyl and paint a scenario that once a nuclear power plant goes off, there is no saving the people around the plant. That there would be problems for many generations to come. This is indeed true. If not designed well, and if the security measures are inadequate, this can indeed happen. But this can happen in so many different industries....why only power? Just like the Bhopal Gas tragedy happened when toxic chemicals went into the air. But this happens very very rarely. In fact, the safety record of nuclear plants is the best. Only 2 major accidents have happened in the last 25 years since Chernobyl. And let’s not is very reasonable for us to believe that what happened in Japan will probabilistically not happen again for the next 100-200 years. Besides Jaitapur is in a far lower order seismic zone. Let’s also not forget that Fukushima was old generation technology.....the plant was more than 30 years old. And yes, Japan can make mistakes.....and India may not. Why do we have such low self-esteem?

Jairam Ramesh should be clear in his communication. Safety discussions are on-going. Just because a power plant is built up does not mean that all safety discussions are over. With new technology coming in, more safety features can keep getting added. We must also remember, that there is no ideal way of generating power. Coal based power plants have many issues....most notable being the emission of green house gases (causing global warming). Hydro-electric plants are clean but have a finite capacity....and cause submersion of a lot of land, leading to displacement of people. Oil based power plants are similar to coal-based plants in terms of global warming. We need all of nuclear a well balanced manner. One is not saying that we should only set up nuclear power plants. What the government is proposing is only some 40000 MW of power in the next 10 years or so....which will be less than 10% of India’s capacity by then. Today, France has 70% of its power coming from nuclear power......nothing’s ever gone wrong for them.

The real truth is that Jairam Ramesh is behaving like an activist. He would ideally like to be outside government and rail against the developmental policies of the government. Unfortunately, he likes the fame and power of being in the government also. He is forced to juggle these mental contradictions every now and then. It does him no good; it does his government no good. He should choose.....does he want to be in government and focus on development (and make tough choices in the process) or outside it as an activist. Activists don’t have to bother about development issues. They don’t have to make choices. They can choose idealistic positions and leave the dirty job of governance to others. Fortunately, activists hardly ever get elected to run governments.....else this country would remain stagnated in poverty forever.

1 comment:

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