Friday, April 14, 2006

NUCLEAR INDIA: Dream or Reality?

Here's the problem: the US has left a trail of energy eating initiatives that have made it massively dependent on oil. Throughout the decades, it has made itself into an oil-consuming giant, all in the name of making leaps and bounds in the standard of living, which it has achieved to an almost absurd extent compared to the rest of the world. Ironically, it is technology that runs on this very resource that has played a crucial role in researching alternative fuel technologies.
So now, the US faces the problem of having to cut down on its traditional oil dependence. On the other hand, it can take advantage of prototype fledgling technologies that can possibly help it to do this. The US was lucky. It got to use all the oil it could to propel it ahead in terms of technology and living standards, at a time when grievances about global warming and greenhouse emissions were a whimper, mostly because conclusive data was not available and advanced computer models had not yet been developed.
Today, the most important change that would need to take place for the US to switch to alternative energy sources, would be one in public psychology. The transition from oil to alternative energy would not take place overnight, but as the system is perfected and tested, it may lead to local changes in living standards which would be perceived as detrimental (given US standards of living, any change in living standards would be perceived as a deterioration). The US can ease the transition by making investments in public transportation and cheap availability of alternative energy technologies like hybrid cars. But that will also need a change in the psychology of government officials who themselves are wedded to the oil economy.

As concerns about global warming and emissions have become realistic, pressure has been put on countries like India and China to cut down their greenhouse gas emissions. If such a word could be used in this context, it is unfortunate that the hue and cry has come at such a time when we are in the same stage as the developed nations were when they were undergoing industrialization on a massive scale. At the time, they used all the oil and coal they wanted to and erected behemoth industrial enterprises. Now, we in India and China criticize them for objecting to our fossil emissions increases. We say that they did it, indeed, overdid it, when they could, and now they are stopping us from doing it. While the argument is justified to some extent, and falls into the same category as other arguments about diverse matters that seek to expose the double standards and hypocrisy of the US (foreign policy, moral instruction etc.), unfortunately, there is objective truth in what is being said. Whether the US says it or not, it is after all true that India and China, due to their sheer population, may contribute immensely to fossil fuel emissions if they follow the path of the developed nations.

I believe that this is a chance for India to latch on to the policy that even the US has missed; that of investing in nuclear power. I think that nuclear power will provide us with the cheapest, quickest, and most efficient way out of the catch 22 situation of progressing and preserving the enviroment (and international relations) at the same time. Because of this, I see the US-India nuclear deal as a truly welcome chance for us, the negative repurcussions notwithstanding. The US did not capitalize on electricity from nuclear power when they could, and the progenitors of atomic energy also turned out to be the most paranoid about its implementation. Overinvestment, faulty designs, and public paranoia over essentially non-existent nuclear risks contributed to the US nuclear industry stalling. The cold war provided the avenue through which nuclear energy came to be equated with nuclear weapons. Today, while the US gets about 20% of its electricity from nuclear energy, countries like Japan and France, which ironically have largely built up their facilities on US nuclear technology, get 50% and 70% respectively, an impressive achievement. These nations have largely circumvented the public fear of anything nuclear, and through efficient fuel reprocessing, made the nuclear fuel cycle efficient and attractive for investors. As for the fear that nuclear proliferation may increase with the rate of nuclear driven power generation, how many terrorists are thought to potentially or realistically have possessed nuclear material stolen from French or Japanese nuclear reactors? Obviously, nuclear power is safe; we just have to put in enough efforts to safeguard it, and definitely efforts that are not more than those used to safeguard chemical facilities.
For India, public psychology with regards to nuclear power is largely a clean slate, and except for scattered groups, I don't expect that large scale demonstrations against nuclear power like those in the US will take place here. What I am worried about is the general lack of good standards that pervade all of our state based industries (like the ignominious MSEB). The reason why the US public fears nuclear power is because of its use in nuclear weapons (a deliberately uncontrolled release of energy anyway), Three Mile Island (a single nuclear accident in which there was not a single fatality), Chernobyl (an accident that assuredly was the result of fundamentally faulty design and blatant human error) and the problem of burial of wastes (which is emphatically not an unyielding techonolgical problem, but primarily a political one). All these scars, unnecessary as they are, are not yet a part of our technological memory, but however safe nuclear power is, it is also a truism that if released in an unwanted manner, it poses a definite threat. In terms of immediate effects this threat is not much different in its nature from chemical threats, and in fact could be much less severe than, say, the release of methyl isocyanate in the Bhopal tragedy. But the distinguishing character of radioactive products, their persistent existence, make a nuclear acccident unique. I fear that if the same attention to detail and safety is paid to nuclear reactors in India as it is paid to the electrical installations and grids in our states, our nuclear future may well be doomed to die before it is born. It is extremely important that the same standards be applied to our nuclear reactors, that are currently applied to the most successful such installations throughout the world. Also paramount to the success of any such endeavor is the education of workers and operators regarding key facts about radioactivity and basic reactor safety. At the same time, any reasonably good reactor usually has multiple safeguards, thus forestalling a disaster that could happen because of one single mistake. Many modern reactors also have inherent safety devices, including nuclear processes themselves that will encourage reactor shutdown and prevent a runaway nuclear event. But who said that we are incapable of making multiple mistakes and thwarting even the most foolproof systems?

Given government track records in managing industrial enterprises, I think that private management of nuclear facilities is an absolute must, if we want to rest comfortably and believe in an assured nuclear future. Unless there is a large scale shift in perspective, I don't see high quality, efficient government control of widespread nuclear power installations at least in the near future; how do we know that the same corruption and low standards that have plagued other big government deployments would not riddle operation of a potential money making enterprise? And while inefficient MSEB practices may mean blowing up power transformers (a situation which arose dozens of times in our housing colony), inefficient nuclear authorities may mean radioactive clouds over my house and toxic wastes in my backyard (this is an extreme scenario, but sometimes it's really hard to trust our honourable government officials too much), which I certainly am not game for. I would love to be proven wrong about this perception, but it would be a good idea to hand over reactor construction and management to private companies that have proven track records. There should not be too much debate about nuclear proliferation there, because of course the government will have control over the nuclear material, but the safety standards and other material managament could be turned over to private investors, from home as well as abroad (preferably from abroad!). The only thing that can stall our procurement of electricity from nuclear power is the same thing that has stalled every other development; corruption, red-tape, and laxity in management. Nuclear power is too important an alternative to be hampered by these human follies. I think that just like in other avenues of development, we are on the brink of a golden energy future that will make us self-sufficient and yet allow us to conform to world opinion about environmental preservation and safety. There is of course, the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip, and knowing our mentality, it is well forseeable that a single nuclear accident of any kind will stamp out future possibilities forever.

Nuclear power is very safe, much safer in terms of human cost than the traditional industries of coal and oil, and definitely much safer than the automobile industry and its manifestations. Many more people have died in road accidents and by chemical and industrial pollution than in any kind of nuclear accident. In fact, it has been documented that more people have died from vending machines falling on them in the US, than in reactor accidents (Haeberlin)! India is an energy hungry economy that still has to come to terms with preserving its environment, and thereby its future. Nuclear power is the most lucrative alternative for making that future a stable one. Like many other enterprises, government neglect and corruption could fell that promise in one blow. There are many ways to make a mess out of it, but one chance to turn it into a success story. I do hope that our government pays attention to every single aspect of safety, management, and cost connected with nuclear power, even if it emphatically means not poking its nose too much into the enterprise.


Anonymous Neelesh said...

Currently India has one distinct advantage of the US...that of being underdeveloped :). Since the US has been an early adopter of technology, it also has to bear the burden maintaining legacy infrastructure. On the other hand, since India does not have that issue, we can directly leapfrog to the best technology, thus taking advantage of the lessons learnt. A case in point is the cell phone technology available in India, which is more advanced that that found in the US.

2:42 PM  

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