Whither Nuclear Power? : Indian Nuclear Power

Whither Nuclear Power is an important question doing the rounds around the world, and more importantly for us, in India. Nuclear Power in India has been a matter of great pride. A milestone in our growth as a country, a symbol of power. A monument to the scientific potential of our country. It is no small matter to say that the nuclear capabilities of India – power generation as well as bombs have changed perceptions about our country on a national and international scale.

Events unfolding in Japan however are a big, big matter of concern. Japan is a country known for its technological prowress, efficiency and disaster-readiness. While admittedly the tsunami and earthquake were extraordinary threats to the nuclear facilities, even the threat of a nuclear disaster has made the catastrophic news of thousands dead pale. Quite obviously, technology can fail in an advanced nation like Japan. What hope does India have?

I see a couple of trains of thought to this:

  • Reactors 3 and 4 at FukushimaNeed for power: India needs power. Increasing amounts. We aren’t able to provide electricity to the entire country yet, let alone move demand from some non-renewable sources to renewable electricity. It is beyond euphemistic to say India needs power desperately for progress or even basic development. AND industry is growing.
  • Threat to environment: If things go as advertised, nuclear power barely makes any imprint on the environment. On the other hand, fuel sources from coal to petroleum all have one distinct disadvantage – pollution. Options like dams are destroying many livelihoods and lives.
  • How much will be enough? On the other hand, its not like having a certain amount of electricity generation capacity is going to be enough. We are going to expand exponentially before we can afford to stop for a bit and say, okay, thats quite a bit done.
  • Myth of renewable sources. While solar or wind energy is an option, it doesn’t have the capacity to meet our needs. We may, one day get there, but its unlikely that its going to happen any time in the immediate future. Till then, my advice would be to write and read such information in the absence of electricity to get an understanding of its implications.
  • Comparative dangers: Here is an article about waste from coal run thermal power plants being more radioactive from that from a nuclear plant. People’s livelihoods are being destroyed in dams and oil refineries have their own set of hazards like fires, slicks, etc. This is the reality of the energy alternatives to nuclear power.  On the other hand, nuclear power has delivered well in India with few accidents.
  • There are many massive threats to life, including things like the Bhopal tragedy. Massive destruction, or utter unusability of land is not an exclusive feature of nuclear power.
  • On the other hand, beginning repairs of any other disaster can begin immediately, unlike a nuclear disaster. Nuclear disasters are likely to outlive us all as a species. Forget individuals, groups, or even countries. That puts a very high price on disaster, because it literally results in the planet becoming smaller and smaller for human use.
  • To be fair, the likelihood of such massive threat to the integrity of a plant is very small. Now that we know it is possible, it can still be planned for. There is already newer technology in use that was not present in these plants that provides even more foolproof cooling. Risks can be minimized through learning from these mistakes.
  • India in general seems to have far less quakes and stuff. It could be possible to choose sites that hold relatively less inherent risk.
  • Indian reactors have functioned without incident through a few natural threats. Notably the earthquake in Gujarat when the reactor functioned efficiently and was a vital source of much needed power in the aftermath. On the other hand, we do have minor accidents which can only be attributed to negligence, which has led to unhealthy risks for employees and immediate vicinities, even though the power plants themselves cannot be faulted. Human error will always be a factor to be working on, and in a country where a “chalta hai” attitude is very common, this cannot be excluded as a significant risk to the world itself, rather than localized as it would be with other methods of power generation.
  • Not having nuclear power is not necessarily safer. To be fair, as long as countries pursue nuclear power, it doesn’t matter which country the reactor is based in. Radiation doesn’t stand in visa queues. We could give up on nuclear power in the name of safety and find ourself irradiated because of a failed part in another country.
  • The key thing to remember here is standards. It isn’t so much about countries pursuing nuclear power, but about the risk of nuclear catastrophe worldwide coming down. I think toward this end, it can be useful to put aside this debate and first reassess all known reactors in the WORLD for security. This process could give us the confidence we need to have a first hand informed knowledge that can guide our choices on the fate of nuclear power itself in our world.
  • I think the private sector should be banned from this market. More than public or private, transparency should be scrupulous.  Really impeccable transparency that empowers further wise choice.
  • Location and scope: A country not using nuclear power is no guarantee that it will not suffer nuclear hazards. An accident in a neighbouring country can be as bad or worse. Ask Belorussia, who suffered as much, if not more, the consequences of Chernobyl in Ukraine.

The IAEA needs to lead worldwide debate around this.

However, this is a decision that can never be weighed adequately. The extent of the factors, both for and against is pretty much beyond our ability to compute and at the end of the day, it is going to come down to the desire of the people and the risks they consider acceptable as a price of convenience and development or comfort or luxury.

As this debate grows, there seem to be the two predictable camps forming. I see this as the easy take. Yes, no. Rigid. Neither works. You can’t have nuclear power plants mushrooming with the state of things as it is. You can’t afford to not have them. Yet, there are very few engagements about the nuances, implications to the country’s ambitions, needs….

I think the more valuable trend of thought is where we figure out how to make it possible in an acceptable manner. While a Chernobyl (and I do hope that Fukushima doesn’t replace that metaphor) is not what we want, there is little acknowledgment that a Chernobyl is not what the pro-nuclear energy camp wants either. It would be far more relevant to our country’s reality to engage in a dialogue around what possibilities exist – alternative, safety, etc. How can we as a country make a choice that we can “afford”.

For example, it is no longer accurate to even judge this situation and base our futures on the results of a reactor that is already outdated. Technology has improved, as have the experiences of others to learn from. If we must judge fairly, it is our duty to apprise ourselves of all the human knowledge available.

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