Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nuclear Power: The Third Way

By T.P.Sreenivasan

The expectation of the nuclear establishments around the globe soon after the Fukushima disaster was that the extreme anxiety about nuclear power would die down sooner or later and that business would be as usual thereafter. The world is not there yet, but time is not far when Fukushima will be just a bad memory except for those who were affected by radiation. Not to learn its lessons from Fukushima is a grave error that humanity can make.

Globally, polarization has taken place between those who are confident that the world can rely on nuclear power for all time to come and those who want to abandon nuclear power altogether immediately even if it means a drop in economic growth. Both these alternatives are not in the long term interests of the countries concerned. By holding future generations hostage to nuclear power, we are doing them a great injustice when we know that no nuclear reactor is absolutely safe. We have every right to jeopardize our own generation, but those unborn should not be victims of our blind faith or lack of innovation or imagination. By dotting our coast with nuclear domes, we are leaving the future generations to live under the hood of a cobra.

Those who insist that nuclear power should be abandoned altogether at this instant and switch to other sources seem to be in a dream world. The investments made in the development of nuclear energy, particularly in the developing world, have paid rich dividends. As of now, the cost of nuclear power production is comparable with other sources and helps reduce greenhouse gaseemissions. More than anything else, the current shortages of power cannot be met without expanding nuclear power in the short term.

In the present situation, where public opinion is divided between pro-nuclear and ant-nuclear activists, different Governments have responded differently to the Fukushima tragedy. Germany and Switzerland were unequivocal in their decision to phase out nuclear power. Others, including Japan, the US, China and India announced investigations and innovations to reduce dangers. Those who were on the threshold of the nuclear age have quietly dropped their plans. Even some of the countries, which have pledged to stay on course, will alter their plans, slow them down and look for alternatives, particularly if the safety reviews reveal inadequacies as in the case of the US. The studies have already concluded that the US reactors cannot withstand multiple natural disasters, as it happened in Japan. China has lost some of its enthusiasm for nuclear power. In India, the mood in the establishment is cool confidence that nothing will go wrong here. Inspections and studies are pro forma as the conclusion is known. India will continue to develop nuclear power to meet its energy needs, even if there is an element of risk in it. The Prime Minister has ruled out phasing out of nuclear power, regardless of the outcome of the studies. It calls into question the purpose of the studies themselves.

There must be a third way, since committing the world to perpetual use of nuclear power is hazardous and we are in no position to switch to alternatives immediately. India should be able to visualize a world without nuclear power after 20 or 30 years. The optimum average age of a nuclear reactor is 30 years and it will not be unreasonable to phase out the reactors, including the ones being installed now in a period of 30 years. Once we establish this as an objective, the entire planning of energy in India should be revised to ensure that we have sufficient capacity to develop alternative sources of energy within that period. Scientists speculate that if India had invested its resources and time on other forms of energy, we would not have needed nuclear power at all

India was the first country to give the world the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. The point that it was an impractical idea did not deter us from sketching the various steps that would lead to global zero. After the deadline that we had set for it passed, the world has woken up to the wisdom of it. Why do we not put on our thinking caps again and draw up a plan of phasing out nuclear power in 30 years? Such a timeframe will not immediately affect our nuclear programme, including acquisition of reactors from abroad. We can commission the French reactors, if the location is acceptable to the people in the area and develop an adequate safety system for a short period, rather than for an indefinite length of time. Inevitably, we need to develop alternatives like solar and wind energy, in addition to traditional sources, which have to be tamed to protect the environment. If fusion technology or any other safe method of using the atom develops in the meantime, we shall be prepared to adopt them in place of fission.

Fukushima has roused the conscience of humanity in a way Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had not done. Faster communications and deeper knowledge of what happened there has dramatically altered the way the world looks at nuclear power. To argue that nobody has died of radiation, while thousands have perished in the raging waves and the falling bricks is to underestimate the impact of Fukushima on the minds of the people.
What India says to the Ministerial Meeting of the IAEA, when it convenes in Vienna in the third week of June, 2011 will be hugely significant. If we merely say that we will undertake inspections and make our inspectors fiercely independent and our processes transparent, we will miss an opportunity to give humanity a way to break away from fear. The choice should not be between fear of radiation and lack of development. A proposal by India to strive towards a nuclear power free world by 2040, with adequate development of alternative sources will be a major contribution to the outcome of the June conference.

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