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Energy or illusion?
By Shankar Sharma

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.

Radiation testing after Fukushima nuclear accident

In view of the nuclear emergency facing Japan, and our government pushing for nuclear plant at Jaitapur in Maharashtra, a debate on the need for and safety of nuclear power has begun. It would help if the following points are also given serious consideration in this debate.

  • Many minor and major accidents in nuclear power plants of techno-economically advanced countries such as USA, Russia and Japan have confirmed that nuclear power cannot be risk free even in the best of circumstances. Therefore, tall claims of Indian nuclear establishment that accidents cannot happen in India and, that the concerned authorities are well prepared for any nuclear emergency can not be trusted.
  • Dr A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, has raised serious concerns about prevalent safety practices in India. While referring to the two safety audits conducted by Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 1979 and 1986, he says: “Upon reviewing them, I was appalled at the clearly dangerous lack of safety in the various hazardous nuclear installations at that time due to unattended safety problems accumulated over the previous 15 or so years, while the DAE continued to operate these installations at extremely high risk to the public.” Referring to the 130 safety recommendations of AERB in 1995, he adds: “Till date, no details are known about concrete corrective actions taken, if any, on each of these recommendations.”
  • The ambitious plans by Department of Atomic Energy to build a number of nuclear power parks with multiple units of large capacity in each location will pose great risk to our densely populated and ill-prepared communities. Many nuclear experts, including Dr A Gopalakrishnan, have opposed the DAE plan to have multiple units of high capacity in a single location because of the multiplied probability of nuclear accidents. The country can ignore such precautionary advice from experts only at its own peril.
  • The large numbers of experts and commentators, post Fukushima accident, have expressed serious doubts about the ability of Indian nuclear establishment to face nuclear accidents. Each of these opinions has demanded a high level of precaution and effective public consultations before the government goes ahead with its plans to establish more nuclear power plants. Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of USSR, in an article “Chernobyl 25 years later: Many lessons learned” has said: “The true scope of the tragedy still remains beyond comprehension and is a shocking reminder of the reality of the nuclear threat. It is also a striking symbol of modern technological risk. In the worst of cases, a nuclear reactor accident may devastate huge territories where little if any human life can exist.” He has also expressed concerned over the dangers of terrorist attacks on power reactors and terrorist groups’ acquisition of fissile material.
  • Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), the largest physician-led organization in the USA, working to protect the public from the threats of nuclear proliferation, climate change and environmental toxins says: “Nuclear power is uneconomical; Nuclear power is polluting; Nuclear power is a public health threat.” A total of 45 groups and individuals from across US have formally asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to immediately suspend all licensing and other activities at 21 proposed nuclear reactor projects in 15 states until the NRC completes a thorough post-Fukushima reactor crisis examination. The Secretary General UN has urged the world to treat nuclear safety as seriously as it treats nuclear weapons.
  • Germany with 20% of its power capacity coming from nuclear plants and Switzerland with sizeable nuclear power capacity are reported to have decided to roll back their nuclear power plans. Even Japan with 33% power provided by nuclear plants, is seriously reviewing its reliance on nuclear power.
“As the global population continues to expand, and the demand for energy production grows, we must invest in alternative and more sustainable sources of energy — wind, solar, geothermal, hydro — and widespread conservation and energy efficiency initiatives as safer, more efficient, and more affordable avenues for meeting both energy demands and conserving our fragile planet.”

In spite of these grave concerns expressed all over the world, it is very disturbing to know that the govt of India has not shown any inclination of even reviewing its ambitious nuclear power plan, which is exemplified by DAE’s aspiration to increase nuclear power capacity from about 4,800 MW now to about 270,000 MW by 2052. This may mean a large number of nuclear power parks with multiple reactors at each site of large capacity of about 6,000 MW, and which will exponentially increase the probability of nuclear disaster in the country. Since the nuclear establishments in the country have adopted a practice of secrecy without taking people into confidence, the so called emergency preparedness is almost non-existent with the potential for large scale human catastrophe.

Emergency preparedness claims by the Indian nuclear establishment fall flat in the light of performance history of nuclear power sector since the establishment of DAE in 1950. In 1969 the Atomic Energy Commission had predicted that by 2000 there would be 43,500 MW of nuclear generating capacity; that is even before India’s first reactor was commissioned in 1969. As on 2011 the total nuclear power capacity is 4,780 MW which is only 2.8 % of the total power capacity. In 2009-10 the electricity generated through nuclear power in India was only 2.3% of the total electricity generated. The average capacity utilisation of nuclear power plants in the country is reported to be not much above 50%, whereas these power plants have been set up at huge costs to the society in the form of massive funding of the nuclear establishment.

Since the nuclear establishments in the country have adopted a practice of secrecy without taking people into confidence, the so called emergency preparedness is almost non-existent with the potential for large scale human catastrophe.

A quick overview of the power scenario in the country clearly demonstrates the gross inefficiency and extreme unaccountability because of which it can be seen as sacrilegious even to consider additional capacity: the transmission and distribution losses of about 28% (as against international best practice of about 5-7%); the average Plant Load Factor of many coal power plants below 50% (against best figures of >>90% for NTPC plants); continuously reducing electricity output per MW installed capacity of hydro power plants; gross inefficiency in end use of electricity; huge scope in demand side management, conservation etc. It is estimated that these efficiency improvement measures alone, if harnessed optimally, can provide a virtual addition of 35-40% more power capacity from the existing infrastructure. Reduction of T&D losses to 10% alone can provide additional power equivalent to about 6 times the present nuclear power capacity. Being a tropical country the vast untapped potential of much benign renewable energy sources available to our country, makes the nuclear power a wholly avoidable devil.

Keeping all these issues in proper perspective, there is an urgent need for our society to question the fundamental wisdom of carrying on with the policy of nuclear power. Mikhail Gorbachev, in his article wrote: “ … it is necessary to realize that nuclear power is not a panacea, as some observers allege, for energy sufficiency or climate change. Its cost-effectiveness is also exaggerated, as its real cost does not account for many hidden expenses. As the global population continues to expand, and the demand for energy production grows, we must invest in alternative and more sustainable sources of energy — wind, solar, geothermal, hydro — and widespread conservation and energy efficiency initiatives as safer, more efficient, and more affordable avenues for meeting both energy demands and conserving our fragile planet.”

Even countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Israel etc which are much less endowed with renewable energy sources as compared to India, have plans to get much higher percentage of their total electricity needs through renewable energy sources. As compared to the estimated capital cost of about Rs. 20 crores per MW of the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power park, the cost of the renewable energy sources, with no other societal burden as in the case of nuclear power, is much less per MW, and is reducing continuously.

The overall cost of a nuclear power plant (from construction till the safe disposal of spent fuel, called Life Cycle cost) is much higher than the total value of electricity it can produce, and nuclear power plants are also estimated to consume much more energy than they can produce. The intergenerational burden of nuclear power, requiring to safe-keep the spent nuclear fuels for thousands of years, is so huge that the present generation cannot be indifferent to it. The role of nuclear power in the Indian context has been and will be miniscule, and therefore, a NO NUKE Policy is in the best interest of the society in the long run.

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.

Still unclear on nuclear?
Friday, March 18, 2011

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.
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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.

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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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