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Sharad Tripathy | 10 DECEMBER, 2015

COP21: No Nuclear Power for India? Is that a Solution?

Centre of protests


It is highly disconcerting for energy safety professionals and lay participants to realize that the ongoing Paris COP21 conference is leading towards very confusing and totally opposing solutions, if three large meetings over the last two days are any indication. All these meetings were attended by over 100 participants. One wonders how people in general, especially in India, would make any sense out of these debates.

Participants from India must have experienced that Paris air is fresh with hardly any sign of pollution as against India where the panicky capital city is at last thinking of organizing strict checks on private vehicle pollution. Yet two Indian ‘civil society ’ organizations based in Paris and two well respected environmental institutes based in Delhi told us in a Parisian restaurant “Chez Jenny” on 3 December that India was much better off burning coal for our energy needs compared to France which depends on nuclear power for 70% of their energy. They told us:

---that coal is sufficient to take care of our energy needs along with solar and hydro.

---That nuclear power has killed thousands across the world and will kill many more in an underdeveloped country like India.

This, despite our own prime minister and experts saying that solar will never become viable for more than 5% of our energy needs except in desert areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and that hydro source is nearing saturation.

Totally opposite conclusions emerged at two other COP21 meetings on Dec 4. Eight eminent environmental scientists were on the panel like Sir David King and Prof James Hansen who were the first to tell us in 1988 about the dangers of CO2. All of them seemed to agree unanimously that India needs urgently large quantity of nuclear power not only for preserving climate or for saving lives from pollution but also for maintaining growth both in short and medium term. They went on pressing for increasing developed countries’ investment in nuclear technology in India and in emerging economies, to make the full cycle nuclear energy safer. In other words, instead of generating waste and storing, nuclear and otherwise, we should recycle the waste fully. This is possible with the new generation of reactors, fast breeders and especially the thorium burning reactors which can eat away all existing nuclear waste. Thorium reactors are much safer and India has large deposits of that.

How do we reconcile with these opposing solutions? It was strange that some Indians living in Paris, who are using nuclear energy with no pollution and no carbon impact on their climate are afraid that it is “more dangerous” than other energy sources as they feel that anytime a severe accident might occur although such an eventuality had not happened during the last 40 years. Others living in Delhi, with 20 times higher pollution than what is considered dangerous and still willing to suffer a slow poisonous carbon death, also fear of a nuclear accident!

During discussions a speaker was lustily applauded when he proposed a solution for dissolving CO2 in solvent although he never explained how we would get such large volumes of solvent or what we should do with it after. Another delegate from probably the best known Indian environmental organization commented that if India and other countries negotiated so hard for accident liability insurance, it must be because everybody knew that severe accidents would happen some day. Thus by the end of the meeting, the conclusion was that nuclear option for India was not on the table and not worth discussing.

It is odd that this stand runs counter to our own government’s official strategy of trying to get into the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) to develop it. Why then are we demanding a membership? Do we need it only for building more nuclear bombs and countering China and Pakistan? But we have never heard of any Indians boasting or threatening with atomic bombs. If Indians seem to take pride in its nuclear scientists and research, it is in the field of nuclear energy generation.

However these eminent environmental organizations of Delhi and those organizations representing India in Europe are opposed to nuclear energy in India because they say that thousands had died of nuclear accidents. Where then are these thousands of deaths? Thousands did die of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima & Nagasaki but that was because of deliberate misuse of energy at a time when we had not even thought of using nuclear power for lighting bulbs in our houses. People died in Fukushima not due to nuclear accident but due to Tsunami. In any case, no one stopped using oil and gas when so many die every day due to gas explosion or petrochemical accidents.

During the last 40 years of nuclear energy dependence, there have been less than 10 severe accidents in countries like France, Japan, United States, Russia, India, China, UK and Korea, some of them using even 90% of that energy at times. Besides they were all chemical accidents, usually a hydrogen explosion with significant amounts of radioactivity thrown in area sometimes surrounding the site. Of course some people died, but only in tens and not in hundreds like when a chemical or petrochemical accident happens. This is because the most stringent safety norms are applied by nuclear industry. No accident in a nuclear facility was due to nuclear reaction getting out of hand, which is probably our inherent fear. Nuclear reactors always have active and passive in built mechanism to stop the chain reaction by the dynamics of the accident itself; so a real nuclear accident never occurred. We have not stopped using detergents made in chemical factories despite the Bhopal Gas tragedy.

Probably we’re also not acknowledging the technological advances in nuclear industry which is much more advanced than in thermal power generation. A few decades ago, flying was considered dangerous and an adventure. Today aviation is the safest mode of transportation, safer than car, cycle or even walking. It is strange that there is public confidence in aviation technology which an ordinary passenger does not understand but why do we have such red herrings for nuclear energy technology? Why do we not have confidence in engineers who claim that they do have the technology to recycle nuclear waste as it is limited in volume, whereas we seem to be satisfied with coal burning when there is still no solution for large amounts of CO2, ash and other combustion products?

What is the reason to make nuclear energy unacceptable to us when it is with zero carbon impact and risk limited to only a few kilometers around the reactors, away from population centers? Why do we accept pollution with risks of possible deaths every day in our cities? What is it that makes Civil Societies and NGO’s in developing countries like India to push us to death by sweeping one of the clean energies off the table?

For now if I can be saved of a slow and poisonous death in Delhi, I’ll be willing to take my vacations on the sea shore near the future nuclear plant in Jaitapur.

(The views expressed here are of the writer, and not necessarily shared by The Citizen)

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