Oh, meltdown!

mister_burnsA nuclear meltdown is quite common in ‘The Simpsons’, the popular television show which chronicles the human condition in modern America using satire and humour. The show is set in the fictional small town of Springfield, known for its nuclear power plant.

The plant is poorly maintained. It has luminous rats running around, pipes and drums leaking radioactive wastes, cracked cooling towers, skeletons in the basement, plutonium used as paperweights, and red alerts consistently being ignored by employees. The nuclear waste is disposed in a children’s playground. The emergency exits are simply painted on. The owner of the plant, Mr. Burns, a cunning man, almost always has the local government on his side. With the help of his position and wealth, he often escapes the liabilities of running a dubious power plant.

In one of those rare cases where reality is better than fiction, United States is also the home to Burlington, the largest city in Vermont. Burlington recently became the first city in the country to use 100% renewable energy for its electricity needs. There’s nothing special about Burlington in terms of where it is located. It’s neither windier, nor sunnier than the rest of the country. It is the intent of the people, and some progressive decisions made over the past few decades, which has made the city self-sufficient in renewable energy.

Around the same time when Burlington declared itself renewable power sufficient, Barrack Obama visited India for the Republic Day celebrations. Amidst both the Indian and the US media cheering the display of India’s military strength, that will put a medieval king to shame, a ‘breakthrough’ was announced, which went relatively unnoticed. The two largest democracies of the world, together announced a leeway in the attempt to set in motion, the long stalled nuclear deal.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the nuclear relation between India and the United States. According to the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, which was signed by George Bush and Manmohan Singh in 2008, India agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear activity and open up the civilian part to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, the United States offered to trade nuclear material, equipemts and technology with India. In 2010, in order to make further progress in this direction, India passed The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010.

The Act made amendments in the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, allowing private investment in India’s nuclear power program. In case of a nuclear disaster, the Act capped the maximum amount payable by the foreign equipment supplier at a meagre sum of Rupees 1,500 crore, and the remaining amount was to be borne by the Indian taxpayers and the International Atomic Energy Agency. While the license to run the plant was given for 40 years, the supplier was absolved of all liabilities after 10 years of functioning. The victims of a nuclear disaster were disallowed from directly filing a law suit claiming damages against the manufacturer. I wrote against the Act in 2010. Little did I know of the impending plummet.

In order to tackle the growing power shortage in India, the government soon allocated out two large sites and offered them to two American multinationals to set up nuclear power plants. In both the plants, Nuclear Power Corporation of India is the operator. Toshiba-Westinghouse is the equipment supplier for Mithi Virdi, Gujarat, while GE and Hitachi will provide equipment for the plant to be set up in Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh. Considering that both these projects involved the usage of untested technology, it was surprisingly, not the Indian Government but foreign suppliers, who turned down the deal. The reason being section 17(b) of the Act which allows the operator to sue equipment suppliers in case the plant blows up and Section 46 which potentially exposes them to unlimited tort liability under relevant Indian laws. The suppliers lobbied hard to get the two clauses removed, and with Obama visiting India, there are signs that their prayers will be answered.

Now it does not take nuclear physics to figure out that liability is the most important aspect while dealing with nuclear power. Being unaccountable for your mistakes is as good as being invited to make them. India is a country which is still recovering from the aftermath of Bhopal gas tragedy, where a gas leak in a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal city killed about 20,000 people in 1984, in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. Since then, justice has been denied to the families of the victims, and given that India’s ruling political party has taken election funds from Union Carbide’s parent company, chances of any justice to the victims is bleak. India’s atomic energy programme so far has been an economic failure and an environmental disaster. The existing nuclear plants have shown irregularities, and are prone to mishaps. Jadugoda, only 20 kms from my home town, has witnessed huge number of cancer cases related to nuclear mining. Despite contributing a mere 3% of the country’s energy needs, more than 60% of India’s total research budget on energy goes to the nuclear sector, while the investment in renewable energy remains menial.

India continues to embrace nuclear energy claiming inability to tackle power shortage, and bows to the interests of their foreign private counterparts; while the world is actively doing away with nuclear energy. The risk of embracing nuclear power is becoming clear. Nuclear power poses health risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or sabotage, and the unsolved problem of radioactive nuclear waste. Nuclear reactors themselves are enormously complex machines where many things can and do go wrong, and there have been many serious nuclear accidents.

Globally, more nuclear power reactors have been shut down than opened in recent years. Only a year after the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, Sweden, in 1980, was the first country to begin a nuclear phase out. Public protests and democratic processes ensured that this was soon followed by Italy (1987), Belgium (1999), and Germany (2000). Switzerland, Austria and Spain soon enacted laws to cease construction of new nuclear power stations.

Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany has permanently shut down eight of its seventeen reactors and pledged to close the rest by the end of 2022. Italy voted overwhelmingly to keep their country non-nuclear. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new reactors. Japan’s prime minister has called for a dramatic reduction in the country’s reliance on nuclear power. Taiwan’s president followed suit. As of 2013, many other countries including Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Israel, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Norway remain opposed to nuclear power.

“Do we have an alternative?”, you may ask. Despite the fund deprived research in renewable energy, in its current form, it will take about 254 square kilometres of solar panel to meet the world’s current energy needs. Compare this with the Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam in the world, located in China, which has a surface area of 1,084 square kilometres. Solar panels can help houses meet their energy needs in a clean manner. Instead of displacing villagers from India’s tribal belts, Solar power stations can be set up in remote deserts. Countries like Spain and United States have successfully enhanced their solar power capacity over the past decades.

Renewable energy also means empowering masses. The foot print area of a wind mill is minuscule and can be built within farmlands to empower farmers to become self sufficient. Several countries have achieved relatively high levels of wind power penetration, such as 21% of stationary electricity production in Denmark, 18% in Portugal, 16% in Spain, 14% in Ireland and 9% in Germany, and have since continued to expand their installed capacity.

Solar and wind energy are also more economically viable than nuclear. Electricity from solar cost Rupees 8, and that from wind energy costs Rupees 4.5 per unit. In contrast, electricity from the Mithi Virdi project will cost Rupees 12 per unit. This, coupled with the high costs of setting up the nuclear power plant and the cost of a disaster may prove to be too burdensome for the Indian taxpayer.

While the rest of the world continues to go non-nuclear and embrace renewable energy, subsequent Indian governments have undemocratically, and quietly succumbed to the powerful nuclear lobbies of corporate America. As people responsible for the future of this planet, the choice however, remains with us.

We may either live in a Springfield, or a Burlington.

Note – this article was first published in the NRI magazine.


2 responses to “Oh, meltdown!

  1. Scientists involved in the Manhattan Project were the first to raise cautionary notes about the use of nuclear reactions, and their first goal was nuclear disarmament. This version of the movement organized protests against the nuclear arms race conducted during the Cold War, and eventually saw some success in the adoption of arms reduction and test ban treaties. This branch of the movement is still active, but has arguably lost importance after the end of the nuclear standoff and the reduction of active arsenals. From the late 1970s onwards, another distinct branch of the movement that opposed the usage of civilian nuclear technology (e.g., energy generation) gathered significant public support in Western Europe and the United States. These activists are mostly concerned about the dangers of nuclear power production such as the risk of reactor meltdowns, radiation release and the long-term problem of nuclear waste disposal. It received significant international attention and increased support after events like the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the meltdown of the Fukushima reactors in 2011. Support for the movement’s objectives considerably differs between the general public and the scientific community, with energy experts being significantly more pro-nuclear than the public. However, some scientists do support the movement.

  2. Pingback: India’s atomic energy programme an economic failure and an environmental disaster « nuclear-news

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