I was pleased that you have written the op-ed in Hindu, and hope that this initiates a debate on various critical aspects of nuclear energy. While most people will agree that there is a need to increase energy generation in India, the choice of energy sources will vary depending on perceptions of danger. However, we need to ensure that we do not get locked into wrong choices that burden future generations to come.
Previous article by Prof Chokshi:
What is Really Real?
Unlike George Monbiot, I turned the opposite way after Fukushima, so that I am now a nuclear energy skeptic, especially for India. This is largely to do with our cultural casual attitude to safety on many fronts, and the related trust deficiency with the nuclear industry (worldwide) and our Govt. As you have rightly pointed out, the lack of an independent regulator is one of the key problems. However, even with an independent regulator, the implementation of the regulatory orders will remain perhaps a bigger challenge.
While nuclear energy may be relatively clean during regular operation, there are several factors such as mining, getting the ore to the necessary concentration for use, and other factors which add to the environmental burden so that nuclear power is not as benign as it is advertised. It is substantially better than coal, but then so are many other renewable possibilities. You may be surprised to know, as I was, that because of the small concentrations in ores the current nuclear plants need almost as much mining as coal for a similar energy – a comparison is misleading when it is coal vs U235 (usually shown as 1 kg of U235 ~ million kgs of coal).
Nuclear power plants have a long gestation period, even without local protests. Despite the large-scale planned increase in the number of nuclear plants in India, the influence of this on carbon emission in India will be marginal at least over the next two decades, as current plans involve substantial increase in coal power until 2050. Furthermore, with the ongoing global warming and erratic weather, several nuclear plants have had to reduce power (and possibly shut down temporarily) during summer time because of reduced water and higher temperatures in rivers.
I was shocked to learn that there have not yet been any large scale emergency evacuation exercises in India. Even after Fukushima, there was a news report of a successful offsite emergency exercise conducted near Tarapur, but when one goes beyond the headlines one discovers that the exercise involved moving 100 (yes – the number of zeroes is correct!) people from a village – just read about this yesterday. We only have to read about the recent Sivakasi fire to get a sense of (a lack of) response to an emergency from the local district managers.
The fantastic scale of proposed nuclear expansion in India adds substantially to the dangers of dealing with what is already a potentially dangerous technology. To add even more to this burden, the Govt is planning to import several designs from Russia, France and USA. There are likely to be important variations in means to handle safety issues, and this will increase the scale of complexity that NPCIL will need to deal with.
While there is an urgent need for an independent regulator, it appears that the Govt and DAE are still keen on exercising control so that the proposed NSRA bill may be worse than what we currently have, as noted by Gopalakrishnan. I strongly feel that there is a need to pause, and have a larger discussion on India’s energy needs and the nuclear energy option.
Without such a move, I am afraid that we are hurtling into a zone that may be a recipe for a major disaster. One always hope that we will not experience problems, but as I know from my personal experience we cannot predict when accidents may happen, and we should not take undue chances especially when there are relatively benign options available.
Finally, I have not touched upon social costs of the choices we make, and to question at what level is a democracy a democracy – as it is too easy to use the “greater public good” to ram down options on the unwilling. In this context, I did feel that you last paragraph was somewhat harsh and condescending. Having seen and heard about some of the people involved, I know that there is a great understanding of the issues involved and people are very committed to the cause they are protesting against and for the choices they want to make – such language works against fruitful discussion and deliberation. You may be interested to know that several months ago the IISc Student Council attempted to organize a formal debate on nuclear energy – they gave up after a couple of months as they could not find anyone to speak for nuclear energy although they found some who would speak against.
Sorry for the longish mail, but hope that we can collect a critical mass to engage in critical discussion on this important topic.