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Still unclear on nuclear?
By Shankar Sharma

Considering the grave consequences of a nuclear emergency as seen in Japan, India will do better to do an objective analysis of all the costs and benefits to the society of nuclear power plants.


The accident in Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant leaves the world worried

The recent devastation in Japan has been described as of epic proportions of many kinds: loss of lives, loss of private properties and public assets; economic setback; and nuclear emergency. While there was not much the civil society could do to avoid the earthquake and Tsunami, the man made nuclear scenario has emerged as the focal issue because of its long term ramifications on Japan itself and also on its neighbors.

Whereas the whole world is extending its sympathy and support to the people in Japan, there are also many lessons for poor countries like India with dense population. A crucial lesson has been the folly of the misconception that the over reliance on modern technology alone can ensure safety, security and welfare of the masses even in a developed country such as Japan.

While the nuclear emergency caused by Tsunami/earthquake has thrown up many critical issues in safety and quality conscious Japan, it is very hard to imagine that the powerful and secretive nuclear power sector in our country (a country generally associated with corrupt and poor quality practices) has taken all the essential and adequate precautions to avoid such nuclear emergencies. It is even more critical to ask ourselves whether a densely populated and resource constrained country like ours can afford such a nuclear emergency?

While it is clear as to why Japan has put so much importance for the safety and reliability of its nuclear power plants (it is relying on its nuclear power industry for about 30% of its total electricity supply), can we assume similar checks and balances in India where the installed capacity of nuclear power is only about 2.9%?

In this background and with the potential for nuclear catastrophe our society has to seek answer to a credible question: whether the planned addition of more than 60,000 MW of nuclear power by 2031-32 (as per Integrated Energy Policy) is in the interest of our society? It is also the high time that the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power park in Maharastra, and similar nuclear power parks in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat are put to a critical and objective analysis. It is very unlikely that the huge risks involved in such vast nuclear power parks can be acceptable to a vulnerable country like ours.

The other question that needs to be answered honestly is that in the backdrop of all the associated high risks, are nuclear power plants essential to our society? Can we not manage the legitimate demand for electricity from numerous other benign options? It is very relevant here to note that our society will not need many more conventional power plants such as nuclear, coal based or dam based hydro power plants to meet the true demand for electricity of all sections.

In this context one would expect environment ministry and the Union Government to take serious note of the nuclear emergencies in Japan, objectively learn from the situation there, and take people friendly and environment friendly decisions towards the welfare of the masses. Since our country has not committed itself yet to rely on nuclear power technology to meet substantial percentage of its electrical energy (unlike the case of Japan), there is a huge scope for our society to correct the past mistake of investing massively in the nuclear power sector.

An objective analysis of all the costs and benefits to the society of nuclear power plants will most certainly reveal that while the costs are unbelievably high, the benefits are very meager and that too for a small section of the society.

One will shudder to think of the high probability of a nuclear emergency with so many nuclear power plants coming up in different parts of the country. There is a serious case for our society to consider as to whether we should take the credible risk of building so many nuclear power projects in the backdrop of nuclear emergency being unfolded even in Japan. Countries like Australia and New Zealand will never have to worry about such nuclear emergencies, because they have clearly stated "NO" to nuclear power. Our society will do well to notice that since the nuclear emergency in Japan, the governments of Germany and Switzerland are reported to be reviewing their nuclear power plans. European Union also is reported to be reviewing the safety of so many nuclear power plants spread all over Europe. We have to seriously consider the consequences of nuclear emergencies in our country.

There is an urgent need to address a fundamental set of issues. Do we need nuclear power plants to meet the legitimate electricity demand of our masses? If so, how many are needed? If they are safe and economically viable, as being claimed by the nuclear establishment, why not increase its share of the total installed power capacity as in France? Who can guarantee us of the required amount of fissile material required for the economic life of these plants? How are we going to ensure the safety of the plants and the spent fuel for thousands of years? Shall we not ponder whether it is fair to pass on all these costs and risks to the future generations, while the present generation may get the meager benefit of electricity at a very low Plant Load Factors (as is the record for our nuclear power plants)? Why have we not objectively considered very many benign alternatives to meet the electricity demand of our masses?

Our society is urgently in need of satisfactory answer to these questions before our nuclear establishment builds many more sites of potential nuclear emergencies. If the government, having been entrusted with the responsibility of conserving our environment and natural resources, and protecting the welfare of the masses, cannot learn from experience/mistakes of others we are bound to have grave situations.

Since each of the three techno-economic super powers (USA, Russia and Japan) has experienced the nuclear emergency from their power plants, the very wisdom of relying on nuclear power technology is being increasingly questioned. If such resource rich and knowledgeable communities could not avert nuclear emergencies, can our densely populated and ill-prepared society ever hope to avert the possible human catastrophe from a nuclear mishap?

In this regard the minimum the Union government should do is to effectively involve all the stakeholders in each of the relevant decision making process. Without an objective and transparent process of diligent approval mechanism for such high impact power projects, it is not inconceivable that the present and future generations are likely to blame the environment ministry and the present Union Government for all the dire consequences of nuclear emergencies in this country.

An objective analysis of all the costs and benefits to the society of nuclear power plants will most certainly reveal that while the costs are unbelievably high, the benefits are very meager and that too for a small section of the society. Without undertaking such objective analysis and without taking all the stakeholders into confidence, to continue to rely of nuclear power will not be in the interest of our society.

To read the detailed version of this article, click here.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Shankar Sharma  |  shankar.sharma2005@gmail.com

The author is a power policy analyst based in Shimoga district of Karnataka state. He remains passionate about renewable energy and environment.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

 Other Articles by Shankar Sharma in
Physical Development  > Energy > Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power at what cost?
Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When the developed world is rethinking on its nuclear power policy, Indian government seems very keen to follow a dangerous path without fully exploring various cheaper and sustainable options of energy production.

Energy or illusion?
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The overall cost of establishing and running a nuclear power plant, and long term burden to safe-keep the spent nuclear fuels for centuries, are enormous and can not be ignored by our society and government.
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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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