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Neither safe nor cheap - suicidal for India to go down the nuclear power path

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  • sacw
    Financial Express (India) April 14, 2005 With crude prices showing no signs of abatement, will nuclear power gain ground? NEITHER SAFE NOR CHEAP Praful Bidwai
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 19, 2005
      Financial Express (India)
      April 14, 2005

      With crude prices showing no signs of abatement, will nuclear power
      gain ground?
      NEITHER SAFE NOR CHEAP
      Praful Bidwai


      The global nuclear industry has seized on the current
      unprecedentedly high petroleum prices to plead for expanding
      electricity generation based on atomic fission. Its case has been
      apparently boosted by political support from the Bush administration
      and the International Energy Agency forecast of a 60% rise in global
      energy demand over the next 25 years. The fact that nuclear power
      plants do not directly generate greenhouse gases also impresses many
      environmentally conscious people who are concerned about global
      warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Despite this, the case
      against nuclear power remains as convincing as ever.

      Consider the major disadvantages of nuclear power, including its
      potential for catastrophic accidents, and generation of high-level
      wastes which remain active for millennia, not to mention routine
      emissions of radioactive toxins, and high costs. Nuclear power's
      potential for large-consequence accidents, such as Three Mile Island
      and Chernobyl, is simply undeniable. All existing reactor designs-and
      there are 440 reactors across the globe-are capable of undergoing a
      Chernobyl-style core meltdown. Equally important, spent-fuel pools at
      power plants are vulnerable to pilferage and diversion of material to
      military uses. All reactors are tempting targets for military and
      terrorist attacks, with horrifying consequences.

      The waste problem has proved intractable. Not only is it hard to find
      or make materials that resist the corrosive effect of high-level
      wastes for centuries. It is impossible, say geologists, to guarantee
      the safety and integrity of remote storage sites for an indefinite
      period. Eventually, waste will leach out. This unique hazard is
      wholly unacceptable. Radiation biologists are agreed that all
      exposure to radioactivity, regardless of the dose, is harmful, as are
      routine emissions of radionuclides from various stages of the "fuel
      cycle", from uranium mining to fission and fuel reprocessing.
      Occupational workers and the public living near nuclear installations
      are all liable to be affected. For instance, a five-fold increase in
      cancer incidence is reported among uranium miners. Indian nuclear
      plants have exposed hundreds to radioactive doses well above
      "permissible" limits (themselves open to question).

      The economic costs of nuclear power are higher than those of
      electricity produced by fossil fuels-even without accounting for the
      expense of decommissioning plants after the end of their useful life,
      or of storing wastes. Decommissioning costs are of the same order of
      magnitude as construction costs! This makes nuclear power even more
      expensive than coal-based thermal power-even with an environmental
      tax. The case for nuclear power might have sounded less unreasonable
      if renewable energy weren't a serious option.

      However, at least three renewables are viable and attractive,
      especially in India. Indian wind generation has come of age, with a
      3,000 MW capacity-already higher than nuclear power, without any of
      the gargantuan subsidies it receives. Wind potential is 70,000
      MW-plus. India's uranium reserves cannot even sustain 5,000 MW.
      Ultra-hazardous fast-breeders are no solution. The "thorium cycle" is
      industrially unproved. Solar-thermal and photovoltaic costs have
      dropped to a point where their combination can compete with grid
      electricity in remote areas and in the millions of village homes that
      remain unelectrified. Nanotechnology is dramatically lowering PV
      prices to highly competitive levels. Small and micro-hydroelectricity
      plants can contribute 80,000 MW without the punishing costs of large
      dams. Combined with biofuel cultivation and combustion, renewables
      can create energy-self- sufficient villages, revive the agrarian
      economy and transform India in ways inconceivable with centralised
      nuclear power generation.

      Nuclear power becomes even more unattractive when its indirect
      greenhouse gas contribution is considered. As an obsolete capital-
      and -materials-intensive technology, it consumes a huge amount of
      fossil fuels at each stage. Indian uranium ore is of low quality
      (0.1%). It costs a lot to transport and mill it. So does fuel,
      fabrication, fission and reprocessing-not to speak of waste storage
      and decommissioning. By contrast, decentralised technologies,
      amenable to community control, have fewer disadvantages and many
      merits. It would be suicidal for India to go down the nuclear path.

      The writer is a columnist and environmentalist


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