Why South Asia needs a non-nuclear future

Risky nuclear energy can be replaced by safer and cheaper options in South Asia, writes Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Article Courtesy: SciDev

Hitachi nuclear

Considered risky by increasing numbers of people, nuclear energy is now no longer the eagerly sought panacea to the world’s energy problems. From its all-time high of 17 per cent in 1995, its share of world production dwindled to 10 per cent in 2013. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, even more than Chernobyl, has left Japan and most western countries deeply worried and suspicious. Japan’s 48 reactors remain shut, about 120,000 people are homeless, and the three reactors that experienced core meltdowns are still in deep crisis. They will need another 30—40 years to fully decommission.

Some developing countries are also losing their former enthusiasm. Post-Fukushima, Indonesia’s civil society insisted that the country’s nuclear electricity programme be scaled back. Its demands were largely met. So, why has it been difficult for public opinion to compel any Pakistani or Indian government to similarly change course?

Opaque programmes

The reason is clear. Both countries used opaque civilian nuclear programmes to make nuclear weapons, which then became objects of national veneration and symbols of power. Shrouded in secrecy, nuclear establishments became a force in their own right. They were not subject to any significant scrutiny of safety aspects. Nor did they feel the need to reveal their plans for disaster management or prove their adequacy. While environmental impact mitigation schemes became legally necessary, these were not to be taken seriously. No attempts were made to educate populations near a reactor about radiation hazards.

A case in point is the recent decision by Pakistani authorities to install two Chinese-supplied 1,100 megawatt reactors near Karachi, next to a 40-year-old smaller Canadian-supplied reactor. Karachi is home to one out of ten Pakistanis. Chaotic even in normal times, evacuating the city in a nuclear emergency is impossible. Panic would cause Karachi to dissolve into mayhem, wholesale looting, and murder.

Pakistani authorities have taken an easy way out. They flatly state that no nuclear emergency can ever happen. This requires a leap of faith because the plants have not yet been fully designed, much less tested. Initially said to be of the ACP-1000 design, later news reports said the Hualong-1 design would be followed. One now hears that the ACC-1000 is being considered. Whatever these names might mean, the fact is that China has yet to build them on its own territory.

Security pleas in Pakistan

Although actual bomb-making moved off towards military reactors many years ago, like the famed Cheshire cat’s grin, tight secrecy persists around South Asia’s civilian reactors. When challenged in court by Karachi’s worried citizens, the authorities pleaded that national security was at stake. Therefore, they said, the public could not be engaged in the siting decision of the Chinese reactors. The mandatory environmental impact assessment was approved by unnamed but obviously handpicked persons. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) official in charge of the new Karachi reactor project told the press, “We requested [the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency not to hold a public hearing because of international politics.”

Presumably, this means that nuclear cooperation with China overpowered all other considerations. A temporary court stay order has been effectively weakened and bypassed by the PAEC. Construction of the civil works is proceeding, and progress in constructing the reactors may be viewed on Google Maps.

India’s environmentalists

India’s story is similar. Environmentalists have had some success in mobilising anti-nuclear protesters, notably on issues of land acquisition. The Fukushima disaster energised anti-nuclear groups like the Konkan Bachao Samiti and the Gandhian group known as the National Alliance of People’s Movements. But, though Indian activists may have mustered a few thousand protesters on occasion — most notably at the Kudankulam and Jaitapur nuclear reactor sites — they have gained no significant victories. Nothing remotely similar to the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the European Nuclear Disarmament has emerged in India. The Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses, a conservative Indian think tank, has published this statement using dismissive language on its website: “An anti-nuclear movement in India would remain largely a marginal movement with sporadic spurts depending on the issue at hand, the site in question, and the political parties involved.”

This seems correct. But it does not call for celebration.

However safe or unsafe nuclear energy in the West may actually be, it is constantly subjected to challenges from an aroused citizenry. But nuclear power in less open societies remains largely opaque and immune from public scrutiny. Under such conditions one can expect lower safety standards. It might take yet another Fukushima-like disaster to change this state of affairs.

Untested reactor designs are by no means the only reason to worry about nuclear power in South Asia where a safety culture is still embryonic. Pakistan, even more than India, should also worry about a terrorist attack against a reactor. Religious terrorists have carried out successful attacks on many of Pakistan’s highly-guarded military institutions, including the general headquarters of the army, the Mehran naval base, and the Kamra air force base. There is no reason to believe that nuclear reactors would be invulnerable to attack.

Another worrying possibility, also officially dismissed, is operator error. But, at a nuclear power plant, there is simply no way for outsiders to know about internal practices. Indeed, the Chernobyl disaster was the result of imprudent actions on the part of reactor operators, and it underscored the vulnerability of nuclear plants to poor judgment. These problems could be exacerbated at a Chinese-designed, Pakistani-operated reactor because operators will lack the intimate knowledge of design and software issues than with an indigenous reactor.

Safer energy options

In spite of the enormous political clout of South Asia’s nuclear authorities and the hold they have in moulding public attitudes, in the long run the demise of nuclear fission power production globally is likely. A quiet revolution in manufacturing technology is leading to a massive surge in energy from both windmills and photovoltaics, and innovative storage mechanisms are being invented. The “levelised cost” (the total cost of installing a renewable-energy system divided by its expected energy output over its lifetime) of rooftop systems is now close to that of retail electricity prices in some countries.

With abundant sun and wind, South Asia has only begun its travel towards renewables. Cheaper by the day, small decentralised solar and wind units offer the best option for urban and village households. This will greatly decrease the pressure on gas, oil, and hydro generation and release energy for industry. Instead of chasing outmoded and dangerous 20th century technology, it is time for India and Pakistan to follow the world into a cleaner, safer 21st century.

Pervez Hoodbhoy holds a doctorate in nuclear physics and teaches in Lahore and Islamabad.

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