Are we riding a nuclear tsunami?: EAS Sarma

E A S Sarma

Former Union Power Secretary

During the last ten years, the world has witnessed an unprecedented resurgence of nuclear power. We seem to be riding a dangerous nuclear tsunami that will surely engulf the planet soon and take it towards a nuclear nemesis. The survival of our planet is under a serious threat.

Ever since Enola Gay dropped its deadly cargo on Hiroshima in August, 1945, nuclear energy has become the symbol of power in the global circles. While the civilian use of the technology for the production of electricity was perceived to be the ultimate solution to the world’s energy problem, possession of as much of weapon-grade plutonium as possible provided a military deterrent in a world where political tensions became the order of the day.

As far as nuclear electricity was concerned, it was the western multi-national corporations (MNCs) that always called the shots. They were so aggressive in campaigning for the technology to further their own commercial interests that they progressively pushed nuclear power to the forefront of the electricity industry. The commercial interests of the MNCs obfuscated the inherent risks of the technology.

Among the nuclear powers, USA was by far the most aggressive, setting up 101,229 MW of nuclear generation capacity that contributed a little over one-fifth of the country’s electricity needs. France followed with a total nuclear capacity of 63,236 MW, contributing more than three-fourths of the electricity consumed in that country. The corresponding figures for Japan, Russia and Germany are 47,348 MW (29%), 23,084 MW (18%) and 20,339 MW (26%) respectively. Even though India was an early starter in nuclear technology, its strong emphasis till recently on indigenous effort limited its nuclear capacity to a little less than 5,000 MW, hardly contributing 2.7% of its electricity needs.

The Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in Pennsylvania in USA in March, 1979 brought a sea change in the nuclear development trends in USA. For the first time, the potential perils of this technology became evident to the public. There was a pause in additions to nuclear power in USA. No wonder, there were no new nuclear power reactors added to the system during the next three decades. After TMI, the Chernobyl catastrophe in Russia in 1986 unfolded the possible magnitude of a nuclear disaster. Till date, the Russians have not been able to clean up the radioactive mess at Chernobyl. A sarcophagus is being built over it to shield people from the stricken reactors and the radioactive contamination they caused all around.

A nuclear accident can be triggered in many ways. Despite the well touted fail-safe systems in place, a human lapse or a mechanical failure could cause an accident of the Chernobyl kind. An earthquake or a tsunami can also lead to similar accidents, as the residents around Fukushima traumatically realized on that fateful day one year ago. Unlike the other technologies that we know of, even if the probability of an accident in a nuclear reactor may be low, once an accident takes place, its outcome will not only be extensive but also inter-generational. There are significant gaps in the scientific knowledge on the occurrence of earthquakes and tsunamis. The seismic event that damaged Koyna hydro-electric dam years ago and the earth quake that flattened the Latur habitation later, both in Maharashtra, showed that, even in zones perceived to be seismically stable, severe seismic events may take place. Similarly, the scientific knowledge available on date is not sufficient to predict the occurrence of a nuclear accident on account of the other factors with reasonable certainty.

There are many in India and elsewhere who try to vouchsafe the safety of nuclear power by comparing the number of deaths attributable to nuclear accidents with the number of deaths attributable to, say, traffic accidents and so on. While this is apparently convincing for a while, one should see through the fallacy implicit in such comparisons. Any prudent disaster manager would consider, not the averages of probabilities in such occurrences but the statistical outliers of the Chernobyl kind. In the case of nuclear power, Fukushima has awakened the world to the bitter realization that a low-probability outlier or a “black swan” as it is sometimes described, can cause unimaginable damage and trauma. The liabilities from the Fukushima disaster have already crossed the mind boggling figure of US$ 16 billion and it can far exceed it, as the real costs are going to unfold as time passes. It may take several decades to clean up Fukushima, that too, only partially. The cost of the human trauma that this accident has caused is immeasurable. The best people to describe it are the Japanese themselves.

It is still fresh in one’s mind when the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MOEF) hurriedly cleared Jaitapur nuclear project to beat the deadline set by the Central government with reference to the French President’s visit to Delhi. It is France that will supply six 1,600 MW EPRs for the project. When the local communities and environmentalists protested, the then Environment Minister rebuked them saying that nuclear being a “clean” form of energy, the “greens” should not object to Jaitapur! As if to undermine his overconfidence, a few months later, Fukushima showed to the world how the so-called “clean” nuclear power plant could spew up radioactive clouds into the sky, far and wide, and spread the radioactivity into the surrounding land, water, crops, livestock and so on. The toxic effect of Fukushima’s radioactive isotopes could be felt thousands of miles away.

Fukushima has not dampened the enthusiasm of the nuclear MNCs, as they could still flaunt the “clean climate” banner to confuse the world community. After all, nuclear power does not leave any carbon footprint. The Indian leadership has used the “energy security” ploy to lull the people into obediently accepting the nuclear option, though its present strategy will only increase India’s dependence on foreign reactors and imported fuel. Post-Fukushima, the nuclear establishment in India has swung into an expensive and dishonest advertisement campaign that befits a tobacco company trying to convince the customers that smoking is not unhealthy. It is ironic that the Indian nuclear industry, pushed by its MNC cohorts, should bring in several celebrities to say that nuclear power is 100% safe and it is the only “gateway to progress” and development! The latest slogan in furtherance of the nuclear option is that all “thinking” sections of the society support it and all those who oppose it are driven by a “foreign” hand. One can easily see the full fury of the corporate world in motivating such campaigns, not based on any scientific reasoning. If at all there is a foreign hand driving such a diabolic campaign, it is there for anyone with a discerning eye to see, behind every decision taken by the government on nuclear power during the last five years or so.

If nuclear power is as safe as the industry makes it out to be, why are the insurance companies world over are hesitant to provide insurance cover for the nuclear plants? Why are the foreign reactor suppliers unwilling to take on the liabilities that might arise on account of accidents? It is sad that India should bow down to the MNC pressure to fix the liability cap at a ridiculously low level and frame the rules ultra vires the liability law, only to accommodate the interests of the MNCs.

Not many people may know that the one and only nuclear power plant that was ever funded by the World Bank was in 1959. The Bank gave loan assistance of US$ 40 million for a 150 MW plant in Italy. The plant started operation in 1964 but was shut down in 1978 and declared to be out of service in 1982 due to a turbine failure. Why has the Bank stopped funding nuclear power since then?

Against this background, the resurgence of nuclear power during the last few years is truly worrisome. USA has just cleared the hurdles for setting up two AP1000 reactors in Georgia. The bilateral agreements that the nuclear supplier countries have signed with countries like India have unleashed the nuclear industry to tap the unlimited market in the developing world. The leaders of many developing countries are far too weak to resist the corporate pressure. The recent trends in the expansion of the global nuclear industry speak volumes about how the MNCs will exploit a given technology, irrespective of the risks it poses.

At present, thirty one countries are operating 441 nuclear reactors, generating around 380 Giga Watts (GW) of power and contributing roughly 14% of the electricity consumed in the world. Out of these, more than 50 reactors have already aged and many more will outlive their age soon. It will be difficult to decommission them fully.

Another 60 new reactors are presently under construction and 150 more are at the planning stage. This is only a conservative estimate.

China plans to expand its existing nuclear capacity of 10 GW to 200 GW by 2020! India plans to add 55 GW to its existing 5 GW by 2031-32. South Korea plans to add around 10 GW to its existing capacity of 18.7 GW. These are mind boggling projections.

Soon, the planet is going to be littered with nuclear reactors of all kinds of denominations and vintage. They will generate heaps of toxic, radioactive waste that we will be compelled to transfer to the posterity without offering any plausible solution to contain their far reaching radioactive risk. We will also transfer the aged reactors to our children and grandchildren, dumping on them the unresolved problem of decommissioning them and cleaning up the radioactive debris they are going leave. More importantly, the reactors that the future generations will inherit from us will throw up stockpiles of weapon-grade plutonium that will augment the regional political tensions in geometric progression, which will one day, in the near future, burst out in the form of a full-fledged nuclear war that could annihilate most parts of our planet.

Should the world community accept this as an option? Should not sanity guide the future of the human race? While narrow commercial interests may dictate the way the MNCs conduct their affairs, should the world community become captive to such interests and move in a direction that is suicidal?

It has been one year since Fukushima. Germany which is heavily dependent on nuclear power has boldly decided to move away from it and shift its gears towards renewables. Should not the rest of the world community follow what countries like Germany have so decisively done and get rid of the globe of the nuclear option and its associated risks?

May Fukushima bring sanity to the political leadership of the global community!

Join discussion: leave a comment