Nuclear or broke

Published : Jul 15, 2011 00:00 IST

India's obsession with nuclear power is proving extremely damaging. It is time to switch to and participate in the renewables revolution.

ARE Indian diplomats, known for their negotiating skills and sense of timing, losing touch with reality? Going by the proposal Indian negotiators tabled at the just-concluded Bonn intersessional climate talks for including nuclear power as a green technology under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), it appears that they are either losing touch or are forced to adopt positions that attract disrespect and ridicule.

The CDM, part of the Kyoto Protocol under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, allocates carbon credits to technologies and processes (for instance, reafforestation, industrial-gas destruction) that, theoretically, avert/reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries. These credits are sold profitably to developed-country governments or corporations, which can use them as a substitute for reducing domestic emissions, as they are obliged to do under the Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol is the world's sole legally binding agreement. But its early implementation phase, called First Commitment Period, runs out next year. Many developed countries are loath to negotiate a second period. The Protocol is on life support.

Apart from failing to recognise this, India's proposal was singularly ill-timed. It coincided with the still-continuing Fukushima disaster entering its fourth month, a serious worsening of the global nuclear industry's crisis, and a huge shift in public opinion against nuclear power. No wonder the proposal earned India the Fossil of the Day award given by the Climate Action Network of non-governmental organisations to governments that make outlandish or anti-green proposals.

The precise magnitude of the health and environmental damage from the radiation release from Fukushima is yet to be estimated. But it is indisputably the global nuclear industry's greatest accident, far greater than Chernobyl. At Chernobyl, only one reactor underwent a core meltdown. At Fukushima, three reactors did, and the spent fuel of a total of four reactors (containing even higher quantities of dangerous radionuclides) was exposed. This was equivalent to an estimated 20 Chernobyl-sized cores. The quantities of iodine-131 and caesium-137, just two dangerous isotopes, released from Fukushima are estimated to be of the same order as those released from Chernobyl. The releases of these and a host of other radionuclides continue uncontrolled.

Experts are still struggling to reconstruct the chain of mishaps beginning March 11. Each new or updated evaluation suggests that the disaster is far, far worse than earlier thought. Data released by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the station operator, show that the fuel rods in the three reactors started to melt down within hours of the earthquake at 2-46 p.m. By 8 p.m, an uncontrolled meltdown had begun at Reactor 1. Fuel slumped to the bottom of the pressure-vessel. By 9 p.m, temperatures had reached 2,800 Celsius, the fuel rods' melting point. The company admits a meltdown also happened at Reactors 2 and 3.

Among the early culprits identified in the scientific analysis were hydrogen explosions of March 12 and 14, which seriously damaged the cores and reactor structures. These are the very events which Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) Secretary Srikumar Banerjee and Nuclear Power Corporation Chairman S.K. Jain dismissed as purely chemical reactions not signifying a nuclear emergency or even an event.

Fukushima has precipitated the closure of as many as 37 of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors, six of them probably for good. Yet more reactors are likely to be shut down for mandatory annual maintenance, and local authorities are unlikely to permit their early restarting. Japan is reviewing its energy policy and will almost certainly phase out nuclear power. Germany, Switzerland and Italy are opting out. Italy's referendum showed that 95 per cent of people opposeed atomic power.

Even in France, nuclear power's most ardent advocate, 62 per cent of people recently polled wanted a nuclear phase-out, and 15 per cent immediate decommissioning. France, for all its advocacy, has only one reactor under construction; it is in deep trouble. The near-bankrupt nuclear company Areva's CEO, Anne Lauvergeon (Atomic Anne), has just been sacked, not least because of the fiasco involving the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) in Finland and the exorbitant costs and multiple failures of Areva's ventures in Europe, Africa and Japan. With this, says The Economist, the future of France's nuclear-energy industry just became more uncertain. Yet, India is planning to instal six EPRs at Jaitapur.

Both the United States and the European Union, which is doing a nine-month review of nuclear reactor safety, including stress tests, will probably halt the practice of uprating and extending the lifetimes of reactors. In the U.S., no new reactor has been ordered since 1973. And the European nuclear industry has not yet fully recovered from the Chernobyl shock.

Global financial institutions evaluating Fukushima's impact believe it will lead to the immediate shutdown of old reactors, suspension of new plant approvals, review of reactors in seismically active zones, higher safety and other costs, and re-evaluation of energy policies in all nuclear countries. An HSBC analysis concludes: Overall, we expect a number of impacts from the public and political backlash against nuclear, which means the focus shifts to renewables. Standard and Poor's nuclear and clean energy indices are moving divergently. The Swiss investment bank UBS says Fukushima casts doubt on whether even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety. We believe the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power.

It will be a miracle if nuclear power survives in the developed world. Before Fukushima, only China and India among developing countries had plans to expand nuclear generation substantially. But China has since imposed a moratorium on further nuclear activity. It has become the world's biggest renewable energy investor. It has 45 gigawatts in wind power, compared with just 10 GW in nuclear. It plans to generate 100 GW in wind and 10 GW in solar-photovoltaics and is already the world leader in solar-thermal.

India alone is playing the boy on the burning deck as far as nuclear power goes. This would carry a fig leaf of credibility if India's nuclear programme were indigenous, big and successful. Alas, it is not. All its reactors are based on imported designs.

Despite annually sinking thousands of crores into the nuclear programme for six decades, India gets only 2.7 per cent of its electricity from nuclear reactors. Its economic, environmental and safety costs are high and rising. The DAE has mismanaged its projects and failed to keep costs under check. Its last 10 reactors were 300 per cent over budget. Its frequent revisions of nuclear generation targets have rendered its energy planning meaningless.

Yet, so insistent is the Manmohan Singh government on forcibly instigating a nuclear renaissance that it is ready to violate its own legislation to hand out sweetheart deals to foreign nuclear companies. At stake is the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act, passed last year after a bitter, prolonged debate, during which the government discredited itself by repeatedly trying to doctor the Parliamentary Standing Committee's draft. The law was originally drafted to meet the nuclear industry's demand that only the operator of nuclear facilities be held liable for accidents. But the government, under public pressure, made suppliers, too, liable in case of faulty equipment or design. It is now trying to bypass the Act in respect of Russian-designed Koodankulam reactors to allow a cost mark-up to cover additional insurance costs ( The Hindu, June 9). This despicable violation of the very spirit of the Act shows total disdain for Parliament. It must be strongly opposed.

The government confronts yet another unpleasant moment as it moves heaven and earth to be admitted to four plurilateral export-control regimes, which it long termed cartels run by nuclear Ayatollahs, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Agreement and the Australia group. This is happening just when the NSG is moving to ban enrichment and reprocessing technology (ENR) transfer to countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India claims this breaches the clean waiver and full cooperation assurances it got in 2008, without ENR exclusion.

Assurances aside, it is totally unrealistic to think ENR can be transferred to any country today, regardless of NPT membership. The U.S. made it clear that it would not sell this to India. India's exertions on this issue, then, are about symbolic recognition as a responsible nuclear weapons-state a contradiction in terms. On nuclear matters, India has always placed an irrational premium on symbols and demanded equal treatment within a regime it long described as Atomic Apartheid.

However, a more important, substantial and worthy battle must be fought working for total global nuclear disarmament. India would gain immensely in global prestige and credibility if it invested in the liability legislation a small fraction of the energies it put into the U.S.-India nuclear deal and in deceiving the public. Equally handsome gains are to be made by participating in and leading the Renewables (Energy) Revolution that is now under way. Both entail abandoning our nuclear obsession.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment