Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Politics killing India’s nuclear power dreams???

First it was the politics around Jaitapur. Now the same story is repeating at Koodankulam. Atleast at Jaitapur, the investments have not yet been made. One can possibly justify the protests as a valid democratic process of being heard. In Koodankulam, the plant is nearing commissioning after more than Rs 15,000 crores have been spent…..and for the local public to demand that the plant be junked at this stage is an expense that the country cannot afford to bear.

All political parties are trying to earn cheap brownie points at the cost of the country’s development. The Left would like the government to put the plant “on hold” as if putting something on hold after waiting for it to be completed would help the country in any way. The BJP talks vaguely that ‘participative democracy” should be practiced in the country indicating that it was not practiced in Tamil Nadu. It is happy to ignore the protests at the nuclear power plant coming up at Kakrapar in Gujarat. One must assume that there is participative democracy in Gujarat, but not in places where the BJP isn’t ruling. The TN government wants to take the easy way out. It is happy to ignore the benefits that the larger population of TN would get from the power plant; it prefers to side with any and all protestors, no matter how small the gathering or how impossible their demand. Smartly, it plays the populism card – passing on their demands to the center for the center to play the bad cop’s role. If this is the meaning of democracy, then India is in for trouble. It is because of such endless debates, and putting things “on hold” all the time that the first sixty years after independence appear to have delivered lesser than what they should have. If we keep on putting things on hold even now, we will again complain about the poor development in the present period of time. That’s why I think it is politics. If development slows down, opposition benefits…..

What’s the reality about nuclear power plants? Are they really the dangerous monsters that they are made out to be? As with most things in our country these days, politics trumps the truth. But this post is all about the truth and it will try to clear the conspiracy against nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants are in reality extremely safe. There have been only six nuclear “accidents” in the last 20 years. A total of only nine people have died in these accidents. This includes three people who died recently at Fukushima – these too died because of non-radiation reasons. Surprisingly, all these six accidents happened in the US (three) and Japan (three). There were eight accidents in the 1980s – the worst of which of course was the one at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. Prior to Chernobyl, the biggest nuclear disaster was at Pennsylvania in the US in 1979 known as the Three Mile Island accident. Both these were large scale accidents involving perhaps thousands of deaths on account of radiation effects over several years after the accident took place. It’s the memory of these two which tends to scare people. Local people automatically assume that the nuclear plant will definitely explode and start panicking.

It is important to consider the risk of nuclear power plants in a relative context. It is not as if thermal power plants are safer than nuclear power plants. The only difference is that thermal power plants cause “slow death” – with the constant degradation of the environment leading to global warming and eventual massive destruction of the environment. It is estimated that India is one of the twelve most vulnerable countries to global warming. Slow death appears to the human psyche to be an acceptable risk of thermal plants. Since there are few “spectacular” disasters around thermal plants, we tend to think of them as safe. We should also compare the safety of nuclear power plants with hydro electric power plants. Now hydro-electric power plants can be very dangerous – since dams are susceptible to the effects of excessive rainfall, earthquakes etc. How can one forget the bursting of the Morbi dam in Gujarat on account of which as many as 10-15000 people perished? The earthquake in Sikkim a few days back has also led to deaths at the hydel power plant under construction in that state.

In many ways, one needs to be philosophical about death – death is everywhere – only we seem to notice it more when it is sudden and high in impact. We all remember the 3000 people who died in the twin towers in New York on 26/11, but we hardly seem to notice that more than 150,000 people have been subsequently killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – wars that were launched specifically to avenge the attacks in New York. We scarcely notice that there are more than 100,000 people who die on the roads in automobile accidents every single year in India. Again, the news is hardly spectacular – even though every once in a while, spectacular images of a bus toppling over a bridge and into a gorge or a river makes it to the front pages. Likewise, there are enough number of train accidents every year and enough number of people dying every year in train related accidents. Why, in the suburban train network of Mumbai alone, there are nearly 4000 people who die every single year – most of them trying to cross the tracks. There are more deaths in road and rail accidents, but we are blasé about them. It is the air crashes that get the most attention. Air travel is the safest form of travel – and yet whenver an air crash happens – and 50 to 150 people die – it causes great amount of fear in the minds of the people. Air crashes are considered “spectacular”. Train and road accidents are considered routine. Likewise nuclear disasters are spectacular events. When man cannot control the course the disaster takes. Man appears helpless. That’s why it is spectacular in the first place. We don’t ban air travel. Why should we ban nuclear power?

If we do ban nuclear power, what is the option we have? India currently has an installed power generation capacity of about 150,000 MW of power. China has about 700,000 MW of power. Everyone agrees that India has to get to China’s level in the next 20 if not 10 years. If we have to get that far, then how are we going to get there? Whether we like it or not, there is no “totally safe” way of getting there. We cannot rely solely on coal-based power plants, even though they will always remain the mainstay of Indian power – after all India is the fifth largest holder of coal reserves in the world. But to depend totally on coal will destroy the environment so badly that we simply cannot do that. We have of course to rely on hydro-electric power also – in fact, India is developing an 11,000 MW hydro-electric power plant called the Siang Upper HE Project. But it’s due for completion only in 2024. And it’s not as if local people and activists don’t complain against hydro plants. In addition to thermal and hydro power plants, we need a lot of nuclear power as well. Currently, we only get 2% of our power from nuclear power; we must attempt to raise this to at least 10-15% in the next 20 years. We are not talking of making nuclear power our mainstay, but we certainly have to enhance it to these levels.

Nuclear power plants are environmentally very clean – they don’t release poisonous carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide etc – unlike thermal power plants. Compared to coal plants, the amount of “wastage” is also very small. An analogy I read over the internet is that if a family of four could use nuclear power for all its needs, it would generate, over a long period of time, nuclear waste of the order of one golf ball. Further, this waste is localized at the place of the plant and can be handled safely, unlike the waste generated by thermal plants which spreads across a much wider area and is difficult to handle. Many people believe wrongly that handling nuclear waste is a problem – in reality it is not. They don’t lead to the submersion of millions of hectares of prime land the way hydel dams do. And most importantly for India, they don’t depend on fossil fuels – and hence the production cost will not shoot up every time the oil costs go up.

People often fashionably talk of non-conventional energy sources – wind power, tidal power, solar power, biogas and the like. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is that none of these is either sizeable or scalable. The biggest wind power plant is in the US – the Horse Hollow Wind Energy center in Texas – has only a 700 MW capacity. The biggest solar power plant is also in the US – in California’s Mojave desert – has a capacity of only 354 MW. Contrast this with the biggest hydro plant – 22,500 MW Three Gorges plant in China. Or with nuclear power plants – where India plans to build the world’s biggest cluster in Jaitapur with 10,000 MW capacity. Or even with thermal power plants – where 4000 MW plants is quite the norm. Non-conventional power plants are unfortunately not the solution to hungry India’s power needs.

Activists like Medha Patkar find it alright to oppose anything and everything. In the past, she had opposed the Sardar Sarovar Dam across the Narmada. She was also one of those who drove out the Tata Nano plant from Singur in West Bengal. It is not surprising then that she is one of the high profile protestors at Koodankulam. Some activists point out to Germany which has made a statement that it will not build any more nuclear power plants in the future. How convenient. Germany knows that it hardly needs to add too much power capacity in the future – it’s ok for it to take this stand. Neighbouring France generates 75% of its energy using nuclear power and it seems to be having no second thoughts. The US, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, Canada, UK, China are all ok with nuclear power – only India has a problem.

The real truth is that opposing nuclear power plants is not the solution. There should be no politics in this matter of national development. The BJP itself is happy with the Kakrapar plant in Gujarat. Why is it playing games in Koodankulam? The Left can keep shouting – after all, it has nothing left to lose. We’ve already had too much politics in our country in the last 18 months – its time now for us to join hands – at least in areas of national priority.

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