India is the second most populous nation on the earth. With a 1.25 billion demographically positive population and the fastest growing economy of the world, it needs humungous amounts of energy to sustain this rapid growth.
India’s energy portfolio is dominated by thermal power that fulfills 70% of its energy needs. As fossil fuels are limited in amount and cause high levels of pollution, the government is trying to look for other avenues to reduce dependence on it.
One such alternative is nuclear energy. Although it also depends upon natural resources like uranium, it is a cleaner form of energy and does not have routine impact on health and environment. It also significantly affects the balance of power in global diplomacy.
But in India, nuclear energy constitutes of only 2.5-3% of the total electricity generated. Currently we have 21 reactors in operation in 7 nuclear plants that generates around 5,780 MW of energy. The government aims to increase it to 63,000 MW by 2032. To achieve this target, 6 plants are under construction and around 10 others are proposed.
But the importance given to nuclear energy is not really justified as the disadvantages outweigh its advantages many times over.
The problem starts even before the power generation. The uranium ore contains only 0.2% of substance fit for use. That too comprises only 0.7% of U-235 particles that is put through processes of enrichment which is a very expensive. As India lack substantial deposits of such substances, it is dependent on other nations like Canada. This weakens its position in international negotiations. Further problem arises with the reprocessing of spent fuel from these plants. Although reprocessing plants do help, absolute security from radiations can’t be assured.
Nuclear accidents are very disastrous in nature. The recent being the Fukushima disaster in Japan, in 2011. Another took place in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine. In both the cases, an area of around 30 km radius had to be completely vacated. The governments are still spending millions on the affected population.
There are serious health related issues also. Those who come in contact with high doses of radiations are found to develop cancer, especially thyroid and blood cancer. It also causes cataract induction and cardiovascular problems. But most serious of them is the altercation of genes. Victims suffer from anomalies like monodactyly (fingers fused to form a paddle) and polydactyly (more than five fingers on hands and feet). These anomalies continue for several generations.
The Indian nuclear program has developed despite opting out of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) and sanctions imposed for conducting nuclear tests. Although there has been no major accident in its nuclear history, the competency regarding implementation of safety regulations and coordination between various agencies has been questionable. Repeated accidents like the one caused by broken turbine blades at Narora, in 1993 despite early warnings by NPCL and General Electric is an example. It started a terrible chain of fires that took several hours to subdue. Another incident in 1994 at Kaiga, where the inner containment dome collapsed during construction, shows our incapacity and casual behavior towards the safety of such valuable assets.
Safety of workers also seems to be of least concern for the authorities, especially of the temporary workers brought to work from areas nearby the nuclear facility. No health or job records are kept or made public even when some accidents occur. Due to unawareness, these workers often get exposed to high levels of radiations and suffer from radiation related health issues.
The Nuclear Liability Bill, 2010, meant to help the victims of nuclear accidents, has been criticized by experts for having several ambiguities and works in favor of companies which establish these plants. It has to be made more strong and clear.
An exogenous factor that poses serious threat to these nuclear establishments is of terrorist attacks. Terrorists may target them in order to cause heavy civilian casualties and can also compromise national security as some of these facilities are used to make nuclear weapons.
Increased public awareness in recent times, has led to a spurt in protests against such projects. Protests were made against the construction of the Jaitapur plant, one of the largest in the world. If built, it would throw 10,000 people out of their land and livelihood. Similar protests have been going on against the Kudankulam plant which is believed to disturb the coastal ecosystem as it is built near to sea shore.
So, for the greater good of the society learning lessons from the past, it is desirable to restrict development nuclear power plants in India for military purposes only. And we should divert our efforts in clean and sustainable energy generation which is easily and cheaply available to all.
- Sukhomay Chatterjee